Playworks Harnesses the Power of Play

Children running on a playground smiling
Photo courtesy of Playworks

Faced with a snowy winter in which it was often too cold for outside recess, Jason Harris turned to…Chewbacca.

Yes, Chewbacca. And yes, this requires explanation. Harris is a site coordinator for Playworks New England, working with a rotating group of four Boston-area elementary schools. And Chewbacca is an indoor game he found in the Playworks Game Guide in which two students cooperate to prevent a ball from rolling out of a square on the classroom floor. “They work together as a team,” says Harris, in the process learning valuable skills. “How do I support my partner? How do I demonstrate good sportsmanship? How do I keep the ball on the ground to keep the game safe?”

Playworks, a national organization, reaches almost 1.3 million students and more than 3,700 schools. The nonprofit uses the power of play to increase students’ physical activity and provide recreational opportunities, both during recess and after school. Using a grant from Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health, Playworks New England has increased its reach to ten additional Boston Public Schools, assisting even more high-needs students.

Viewing play as a health opportunity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all children be active 60 minutes each day. “The typical 20-minute recess can go a long way toward that goal,” says Jonathan Gay, executive director of Playworks New England. “And that’s important, because the Boston kids we’re working with don’t have enough opportunities” for activity. About 80% of the Boston children served by Playworks are categorized as high-need by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That may mean they’re from low-income families, are English learners, or have learning differences. Due to their circumstances, high-needs students are less likely to get that all-important 60 minutes a day of activity.

One of Playworks’ primary achievements is to help schools and students get the most out of recess. “Play is universal—every kid can play in some capacity, regardless of ability,” says Gay. “But if you’ve got a hundred kids out there, you’ve got to create a lot of options.” Playworks tackles this by setting up seven or eight activities each recess. These typically include such classics as dodgeball, hula hoop, basketball and soccer. 

However, the instructors tweak games to make them more inclusive for children of all abilities. Often, that means separating skills from end-goals. For example, basketball may be broken into dribbling and shooting drills, allowing students to seek the activity and skill level that suit them. “By changing the game a little bit,” says Gay, “you’re making it more inclusive, transforming recess. Students are suddenly practicing how to get along, how to settle their differences.” 

Playing more to learn more

The benefits of play have been widely researched and documented. Students, teachers and the education system in general benefit from programs like those provided by Playworks. One study compared an unstructured recess to a Playworks session and found children to be “more vigorously active with our program,” says Gay. “There was more skipping, running, jumping.” Additionally, Playworks students return to class faster and more focused. That means they begin learning sooner, gaining five to seven minutes of teaching time per recess. Over a school year, Gay notes, “that adds almost an additional week of learning.” It’s no wonder Playworks now serves 40 Boston schools, with more principals wanting to participate. 

Studies also point to another, very timely, benefit of Playworks: researchers noted “one of the largest decreases in bullying they’ve ever seen,” says Gay.  Unsurprisingly, school playgrounds are often a hot spot for bullying, he adds, but “we’re creating a safe space.” How? “When we teach new games, we weave in specific social and emotional skills,” says Harris. Empathy is one such skill; when he introduces a new game, Harris asks students to envision “If you win, how can you demonstrate good sportsmanship? I want them to picture being in the other kid’s shoes, as opposed to getting in their face.”

Whether it’s one child asking another, “I know you’re in a wheelchair—want to play Four Square with me?,” which Gay has witnessed, or a site coordinator teaching the universally understood game of Tag to students who haven’t mastered English, Playworks is helping transform recess from a free-for-all to a vital component of education.