Do kids really have to be taught how to play?

At Powell Elementary School in Raleigh, a recess coach from Playworks organizes games, makes sure everyone participates and helps the students work out any conflicts.
At Powell Elementary School in Raleigh, a recess coach from Playworks organizes games, makes sure everyone participates and helps the students work out any conflicts. Courtesy of Emilie Carol Photography

Play is children’s work.

That’s an adage most everyone has heard. But few take it quite as literally as Playworks, a nonprofit created to help children reclaim some of the learning experiences that used to happen regularly during unstructured play.

Children today have fewer opportunities for free play than did their parents and grandparents thanks to heavy academic schedules and weekends – and sometimes weeknights, too – filled with sports practice, tutoring, music lessons or all of the above.

Playworks trains and sends recess coaches into schools and after-school programs to encourage ways of playing that ensure children get the most out the experience.

“There are so many things that are learned through play – social and emotional skills, conflict resolution, cooperation, leadership and others,” said Kristin Hathorn, Playworks executive director for North Carolina.

Playworks’ website describes its program as a “thoughtful approach to recess,” designed to improve these skills – sometimes called “soft” skills – that are important to successfully navigating family life, adolescence and, eventually, adulthood and the workplace.

A Playworks coach might organize a kickball game, four square or other activities that students enjoy during recess – and then hang around and encourage everyone to participate. He or she might step in to assist students in resolving a conflict or to iron out game rules before yelling or name-calling can begin. They model positive behavior and are quick to shut down destructive behaviors. They teach students simple tactics for resolving disputes, such as through a game of rock-paper-scissors or by flipping a coin.

To students, however, a Playworks coach is simply there to help them participate in and enjoy recess.

“Our staff provides a caring, consistent adult on site who sees those students every day,” Hathorn explained. “He or she will know the students’ names and become well acquainted with each child throughout the year as they play games and just hang out on the playground.”

Playworks typically staffs playgrounds in communities where most students receive reduced-price or free lunches and families have fewer resources, Hathorn said.

“In a lot of families, the parents are working two or three jobs, and kids may have to go straight home from school and be told to stay inside the rest of the day,” she said. “That makes it a lot more challenging for kids to pick up on social skills.”

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Playworks started in 1995 with just two California schools. Today, the nonprofit has worked in 1,300 schools, helping 700,000 students. In addition to on-site staff, the program also trains teachers and parents to use similar positive reinforcement and behavior management techniques with their kids.

“It alters the way kids perceive situations when they see it’s possible to works things out,” Hathorn said.

With various factors putting the squeeze on the school day, some school systems have cut back or eliminated recess altogether. Some choose to use the time to review academic lessons or even add new subjects, such as foreign language. And while that may nudge scores and rankings higher in some cases, it comes at a steep price, according to several studies cited on the Playworks website, www.playworks.org.

Rowdiness and other disruptive behaviors have been shown to increase when students have no access to playtime, and their ability to concentrate well on lessons is likely to drop.

In one controlled study, kids taking recess on a Playworks-staffed playground were significantly more physically active than others – something Hathorn considers a secondary benefit.

Playworks has staff at six sites in the Triangle – five in Durham County and one in Wake County.

James Hopkins, principal of Lakewood Elementary in Durham, said this is the second year his school has had Playworks on site.

“Our kids and our teachers love it,” Hopkins said. “It provides a chance for students to engage in some structured activities and gives the teachers a chance to watch their students interacting with others.”

Playworks staffers also help take the burden off of classroom teachers to organize and supervise recess, something most aren’t trained or eager to do.

“Most teachers don’t get any breaks in the day,” Hathorn said. “So we encourage them to join the play and have fun.”

Playworks North Carolina

P.O. Box 51729

Durham, NC 27717


Contact: Kristin Hathorn, 919-419-6446

Description: Playworks’ mission is to improve the health and well-being of children by increasing opportunities for physical activity and safe, meaningful play.

Donations needed: Money.

Volunteer opportunities: School recess volunteers are needed, and we also have corporate volunteer opportunities.

Minimum volunteer time commitment: 5 hours.

$10 would buy: Snacks for one Junior Coach meeting.

$20 would buy: Junior Coach T-shirts for one school.

$50 would buy: Playbook for one school with over 400 Playworks games.