Health & Fitness

Kids – and administrators – embrace organized fun of Playworks

Playworks instructor Junayd Abdin ends recess with second-graders at Brentwood Elementary School Thursday by running through the line of students.
Playworks instructor Junayd Abdin ends recess with second-graders at Brentwood Elementary School Thursday by running through the line of students.

It’s a cold day in Durham, and Cristal Simon’s fourth-grade class at Glenn Elementary is coming to the close of a science lesson. The kids are sitting around their tables when Ashley Morie – Coach A, as everyone here calls her – enters the classroom and brings recess to them. They stand and face her and she announces the first game: “Frozen fish!”

“Yes!” one boy exclaims. The game involves moving like a robot, lurching like a zombie and moonwalking – and then freezing. Kids will be kids, so they get excited, and eventually they’re all talking at once. Morie catches their attention in her own way, though – she tells them there’s just “one mic,” and they quiet down immediately.

“Back in high school, my high school coach just rolled the balls out there and said, ‘go at it,’ ” says Glenn Elementary principal Cornelius Redfearn. Coaches like Morie, though, work hard to get students moving and to make sure nobody feels left out; it’s by design.

Morie is Glenn Elementary’s school program coordinator – that is, coach – with Playworks, a national program that’s been in Durham County elementary schools four years and is slowly expanding into Wake County. Playworks’ mission is to replace the chaos of recess with something more organized, with the aim of making it a more inclusive, enjoyable time for students – one, remarkably, without fighting. As the principals of these schools attest, it’s working.

“We were able to see those behaviors diminish,” Redfearn says. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you they’re all gone, that it’s utopia, but I will say that we’re in a much better place.”

In schools without the program, Playworks NC executive director Don Fowler says some students approach recess with dread, worrying if they’ll get picked on. During recess, some sit on the sidelines rather than play. And then there’s afterward, when some students remain agitated – or end up in the principal’s office. All of these classroom disruptions result in the loss of valuable instructional time, he says, and they tend to stem from recess.

“That’s where the bullying happens, that’s where the arguing happens, that’s where the fights happen, and that’s where a sedentary lifestyle will grow, if you allow it,” Fowler says. He’s over 6 feet tall and powerfully built, but he speaks with a gentle voice and high-fives everyone – students, coworkers, principals, teachers and the occasional newspaper reporter.

Playworks’ efforts, he says, give back 20 hours of instructional time per year; if a school day has four hours of teaching time, this means each school effectively gets an extra week back, he explains.

Fewer disruptions

This stems from incredibly simple solutions, such as widespread use of roshambo (Playworks’ preferred term for rock-paper-scissors) to solve any and all conflicts. Morie hears students solving disagreements in the hallways or even classrooms with roshambo. It offers a quick solution, defusing the conflict before it gets out of hand.

“It’s the immediacy of handling a situation right then and there and being able to move on with the play,” says Eric Fitts, principal of Brentwood Elementary School in Raleigh. This is Playworks’ first year at his school, but he’s already seen big changes.

“You would have the guys generally playing football or soccer and sometimes, and even though we say no tackling, a two-hand touch turns into a push,” he recalls. Under the old ways, this could escalate fast. Playground problems ran the gamut from fights to kids who were disengaged and sitting off to the side. To many parents, that sounds like the playground they remember – and some ask why it needs changing.

“Times continue to change and we have to evolve with the times,” Fitts says. “We just can’t continue doing the same old thing just because it was done 20, 30 years ago.”

Besides, Fowler feels these kids aren’t outside playing in groups like their parents did. Playworks, he says, provides the lessons that used to come out of outdoor neighborhood play.

Teaching solutions

Yet there’s more to it than that – even this pastoral ideal could include bullying and teasing. No, there’s something inherently modern about Playworks’ solutions: In a lesson seemingly lifted from the business world, student leaders work alongside the coaches, actively learning leadership and conflict resolution skills. And, through roshambo, conflicts are defused before they start, resulting in students approaching recess with confidence and not dread.

“They need to be able to solve their problems diplomatically and have resolutions and then be able to move forward; we don’t want animosity to continue to linger,” Fitts says. “This is a positive change in the right direction that actively engages everyone, and I don’t see how that’s a negative thing.”