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Reforming recess: Coach is key to success of Playworks, now being tried in St. Paul

Jill Vialet
Jill Vialet

Thursday afternoon, Jill Vialet stood on a frozen playground in St. Paul and surveyed the latest outpost in a blossoming empire organized around fun for fun’s sake. Specifically, Vialet was observing recess at the east-side World Cultures Magnet School.

The school participates in Vialet’s Playworks program. As such, it enjoys a full-time recess coach, who had several games set up on the playground before the elementary-age pupils were released outside.

As kids came out of the building, they were free to do whatever they chose, but they had to check in with the coach at home base first, according to Playworks’ Twin Cities Executive Director Tom Evers. There, they heard what their choices for the day were: Typically, that might be Cookie Monster tag, capture the flag, rope jumping or four square.

Vialet watched a group play switch, a cake-walk-like game where kids race from cone to cone, with someone ending up odd man out after a cone is removed at each turn. At one point, two girls landed at the same cone at the same time.

Rock, paper, scissors
Without exchanging a word, they automatically resorted to rock, paper, scissors to determine who stayed; the loser would be back in the game in moments anyhow. It was precisely the kind of conflict resolution Vialet had in mind when she dreamed up Playworks.

Too often these days, recess is a brief, stressful free-for-all in which kids who have little experience playing together in neighborhoods outside of school try — and fail — to get along. Their harried teachers disappear back into the building to prepare and catch a break.

Left alone, if kids don’t know the rules to games, much less fair-spirited ways to settle disputes, recess can provoke more stress than it discharges. “They’re not prepared to start their own games, keep them going or resolve conflicts,” said Vialet.

Instead of students who’ve burned off some energy, after lunch teachers are greeted with irritable kids who need help resolving fights. In the era of high-stakes testing, educators response is often to cut back on playtime even further.

Five St. Paul schools participating
This year for the first time, five St. Paul schools are participating in the novel effort to revolutionize recess. Each has an energetic, youthful and very well-trained Playworks coach who stays in the building all day looking for opportunities to reinforce the idea that structured play is crucial.

The coaches work with teachers, coordinate after-school activities and serve as one more caring adult for students to interact with, but their main job is to ensure that every kid gets to play every day — in a constructive way.

Vialet’s lightbulb moment took place in Oakland, Calif. A self-described “serial social entrepreneur” she had left a job as a stockbroker to start a children’s museum and was calling on the principal of an elementary school.

The principal showed up for their meeting trailing three angry little boys and exploded about how hellish recess was. Could Vialet do something about that?

She could. Indeed as the woman ranted, Vialet thought about a coach she’d known at a park growing up who had taught playground games — and social skills — to neighborhood kids. “I could make it,” she recalled in an interview, “so every kid had a Clarence.”

“Kids are making so many choices about their identity,” said Vialet. “You can be anything you can imagine.”

Model caught on in Oakland
She put coaches in two Oakland schools and “the model caught on like wildfire.” Fast-forward 14 years and, thanks to nearly $19 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Playworks has expanded to low-income schools in 31 school districts in 15 cities across the country.

In St. Paul, the program is operating in Concordia Creative Learning Academy, World Cultures Magnet School, Eastern Heights Elementary, Paul & Sheila Wellstone Elementary and Prosperity/Hayden Heights Elementary.

The results are impressive. According to Playworks, teachers report regaining 36 hours of classroom time each year simply from not having to calm harried children or sort out recess battles. Some 91 percent of principals report that kids are more cooperative with each other, and almost as many say they’ve seen a decrease in bullying and an increase in engagement.

“We’re tweaking the school climate,” said Vialet. “It’s about that playful mind [kids] bring back into the classroom.”

If she had her way, U.S. schools would have three 20-minute recess periods instead of one — plus phys ed. Schools with an extended day, an increasingly common tactic for trying to close the achievement gap, should have five, in her opinion. There’s research to back her up.

An essential shift in cognitive function
“Play in general creates a shift in cognitive function that’s essential,” Vialet said. “Mastery, failure, ownership, the ability to try again, engagement — they’re all correlated.”

A recess coach can be particularly helpful in a community where many kids are immigrants from different parts of the world and may not share a common language, let alone all know the rules to four-square.

“We know kids are starting to play ‘switch’ in their neighborhoods with other kids because it’s now common currency,” Vialet said. “Having kids assume responsibility for the play without grownups doing it is a huge piece of the puzzle.”

One of the participating St. Paul schools this fall merged with another. Students from the two programs, Prosperity and Hayden Heights, are getting to know one another through the adult-guided activities, according to Playworks’ Evers. 

The model — placing a coach, and not teachers, in charge — has had something of a subversive effect on the adults in schools. “When you get five games going and kids are engaged and everyone is having a good time, you see the slow migration of the adults back out onto the playground,” said Vialet. “When the grownups migrate back out, all of a sudden you get that reticent first-grader deciding it’s safe to join the game.”

School pays about 40 percent of cost
Right now, it costs about $60,000 a year to put a coach in a St. Paul school. The school must pay about 40 percent of that cost (or $20,000 in St. Paul right now), and Playworks makes up some of the difference by charging more affluent districts and programs for training and consulting.

Asking principals to pay for the coaches ensures that they are more likely to take a teacher-training component of the program seriously. And most end up thrilled with the role the coach assumes for the rest of the school day, Vialet said.

Playworks is slated to start up in 10 new cities next year, and Evers is in discussions with other Twin Cities districts about expanding the program. Once he has 24 schools, his cost per building will drop to $50,000. “But the first couple of years in a new city are really just about winning friends,” he said.

“If you really are going to have an authentic discussion about education reform and not talk about this part of the day, you are going to fail,” said Vialet. “As a grownup, when I think about what experiences made me most effective, games were huge. You have to know when you should start and when you pass the ball.”

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