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Play Well, Learn Better

Stockton (Calif.) Unified School District promotes healthy recess activities to reduce chaos on the school yard and ultimately in the classroom.
With the help of Playworks coaches, the chaos of recess yards is transformed into an atmosphere of teamwork, fun, and healthy play.


Recess isn't always fun and games. In fact, not so long ago, Stockton Unified School District (SUSD), an urban district of 50 schools and 38,000 students in the heart of California, found that a disorganized recess led to fights, bullying and gangs. Instead of engaging students in constructive play, recess-supervising Community Safety Assistants (CSAs) were forced to act more like disciplinarians, trying to prevent kids as early as fourth grade from joining gangs. In areas like Stockton, home to the second-largest crime rate in California, it can be difficult for kids to learn safe, healthy play.

The problem, explains Kirk Nicholas, Stockton's assistant superintendent, was that "we didn't really have a systems approach for how students came onto campus and moved throughout the day." The absence of this approach, Nicholas says, set the stage for kids to make poor decisions and use recess as a time to cause trouble instead of engage in active play. "When you have a chaotic yard, you have chaos going into the classroom."


To create a functioning system for recess in Stockton, it was essential that district administration and unions work together to devise a plan for the benefit of all. The result of their effort was to enlist the help of Playworks, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is "to improve the health and well-being of children by increasing opportunities for physical activity and safe, meaningful play."

"What we're finding is that there's chaos in the recess yards across America," says Jeremy Lansing, manager of Playworks' training program. "We're looking to stop the chaos and shift the behavior in school culture by giving teachers more time to teach," Lansing says. He explains that if the kids are engaged and focused on games during recess, teachers don't have to spend as much time after recess solving problems or getting kids' attention— they're already prepared to learn.

Playworks' system in Stockton has taught kids how to resolve conflicts through nonaggressive means—for example, by playing rock, paper, scissors—and is providing students with skills that will last a lifetime, says Nicholas. And that's important, Lansing continues, because when you only have seven minutes to play a game and five of those minutes are used to decide if the ball was in or out, rock, paper, scissors can cut down on arguments and increase play time.

There are two models. The first, for only low-income elementary schools, involves a full-time Playworks staff member working directly in the school, facilitating games at recess, overseeing sports leagues, and building youth leadership at an average cost to the school of $25,000 a year, supplemented with fundraising by Playworks. The second model, used in Stockton, involves about 40 hours of training a year, both in groups and one-on-one, and ranges in cost based on location.

The positive impact of the program goes beyond the kids. The CSAs of Stockton, previously only trained in how to restrain kids, now feel better about going to work. They've become role models for the kids, and instead of "standing around waiting to be reactive," they actively engage in the fun of recess, says Nicholas.

Adrienne Machado, principal of Pittman Elementary School, one of 42 elementary schools in the district, notes that not every CSA was as enthusiastic about the training. "The person has to want to change and get involved," she says.

But overall, there's great promise in Playworks' approach to recess. "It's taken a while, but the kids are now more engaged and more used to problem solving instead of just fighting it out," says Machado. "They can be in charge of their lives."

And that seems to be the key. Lansing stresses the importance of teaching kids how to solve their own problems through youth leadership. "When you start to give ownership back to the students," he says, "that's when the change really begins to happen."

For a list of over 300 games, visit the Playworks Web site and download the free playbook: