What Happened To Old-School Recess?

DETROIT—Teachers and principals at grade schools in lower-income neighborhoods have long lamented that teachers don’t get to devote enough time to actual teaching, because they spend too much time having to resolve conflicts between students – including bullying and fistfights.

But a  study published in May by the Playworks recess program – which is currently being used in 12 Detroit-area schools – shows that the program yields many, wide-ranging benefits, including more time for teaching, less bullying, a greater feeling of safety among students and increased physical activity.

The study was conducted by the Mathematica Policy Research and the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University. Those results confirm educators' beliefs that play can have a positive impact on a school’s learning environment.

“These findings tell us there is much more to recess than meets the eye,” said Nancy Barrand, senior program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which sponsored the research trial. “If a single program at recess can prevent bullying, help students be more physically active, and give teachers more time to teach, it suggests that schools ought to take a much harder look at what is happening on their own playgrounds at recess.”

Playworks, a non-profit organization based in Oakland, Calif., opened an office in Detroit in 2010 – the same year Playworks was first introduced into Detroit-area schools. Playworks implements the program in schools where at least 50 percent of the students receive federally-funded free or reduced-price lunches.

Playworks was initially created to address two of the biggest problems in schools in low-income neighborhoods – budgets being repeatedly cut, which led to recess either being eliminated or significantly reduced – and teachers having to deal with the problems students have in their home lives.

Battling troubled home lives

“Some of these kids are coming to school hungry, some are homeless, some are in foster homes, some are living by themselves, so in many cases, the teachers are trying to teach kids who are already coping with so many other challenges,” says Jeannine Gant, the executive director of Playworks’ Detroit office.

The randomized control study compared Playworks schools with control schools in five cities. The results included these findings:

  • Bullying and “exclusionary behavior” during recess was 43 percent lower than in the control schools.
  • Students' feelings of safety at school was 20 percent higher than the average rating in the control schools.
  • Children spent 43 percent more time engaged in vigorous physical activity at recess than their peers in the control schools.
  • Teachers reported spending 34 percent fewer minutes transitioning from recess to learning activities, compared to the control schools.

“One of our missions is to improve the health of children through physical activity and play,” says Gant. “That’s important, because children in low-income neighborhoods and households are more likely to have health challenges like childhood obesity, or juvenile diabetes. If you’re a black girl or a Latino boy in that kind of environment, you are more likely to have those health issues.

“Plus, these low-income areas are frequently also not safe, so the kids can’t go outside and play, because their parents are concerned about gang activity and drugs,” explains Gant. “So they spend more time inside in the house, and they likely aren’t even walking to school, either, because of the safety issue. So, they’re just not getting enough exercise.

“When we first came to Detroit, many of these schools didn’t even have recess – their physical activity consisted of walking the kids around the school grounds after lunch.” The social aspect of recess is also critical, affirms Gant: “We’ve traditionally thought of the school playground as the place where everyone gathers, to play, and socialize with their peers, and learn rules of interaction, and have good experiences that they will remember fondly.”

But before Playworks programs were implemented “recess had previously become a chaotic time during the school day, where there was bullying, and fighting, and kids getting hurt and sent to the office,” she says.

“So, with Playworks, we have well-trained program coordinators and coaches who are there to create a safe and inclusive experience for all the children, and make sure that the kids have a wide variety of games they can play,” says Gant. Those are typically “traditional playground games like Four Square, tag, jump rope, hula hoops, basketball, and once a week we’ll have a special game of the week, like soccer.”

Coordinators and coaches monitor the games, to make sure everyone is included, and “to prevent bullying and fighting, and to teach the kids better ways to resolve conflicts,” explains Gant. “So we’ve definitely seen an increase in the quality of peer-to-peer relationships.

The reduction in bullying is a significant accomplishment, stresses Gant: “As we have seen in the news, bullying can lead to horrific endings, and in Playworks, we teach kids how to live life without being a bully. In many low-income neighborhoods, there is a higher incidence of violence: If that’s all a child knows, if they see a lot of violence growing up, they’re going to project that onto others.”

Clearly, there is a psychological element that at work here, underscored by the old adage that today’s victim is tomorrow’s predator. “So our goal is to create a more engaging, more accepting environment, so that children do feel more accepted, and don’t grow up to be a bully by the time they’re in the 8th grade,” she observes.


One Detroit school administrator who has seen the benefits of the Playworks program up close, on a daily basis, is Josette Buendia, principal of Bennett Elementary School in the Vernor/Springwells area.

“We just finished our third year with the Playworks program, and it is has really led to a remarkable turnaround in the way that the kids interact with each other,” effuses Buendia. “In some of these urban, low-income districts, we’ve seen a propensity for more physical, more aggressive behavior, instead of verbally expressing their concerns. Many of them are very hyper-sensitive about being disrespected” – “dissed,” in street parlance.

“But when you’re at that age – our school has pre-school through 5th grade – you have many instances, throughout the day, when you line up for recess, or dismissal, or to go to the cafeteria, when someone is bound to bump into someone else, or step on the back of their shoe, or two kids will get to the head of the line at the same time,” says Buendia. “So, in some urban districts, that leads to the child taking a physical stance, and becoming hostile. And a lot of this behavior is modeled at home.”

"But with Playworks, protocols have been put into place that includes using the old Rock-Paper-Scissors game to resolve conflicts. So now, says Buendia, “whenever there is any kind of tie – if two kids get to the head of the line at the same time, or to the water fountain at the same time, or if someone bumps someone else with their knee at the cafeteria table – the kids are now so conditioned by those protocols that they immediately do Rock-Paper-Scissors.

"And whoever wins, that’s the end of it. In the past, situations like that would have led to punches being thrown. Now, I see kids doing Rock-Paper-Scissors in the school all day long.”

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