Playing for Keeps

Recess program gives kids the tools needed for success in life

Since Loma Linda Elementary School in Phoenix implemented an improvement plan in 2012, student behavior has dramatically changed.

“We saw a significant reduction in suspensions and office referrals in those highly structured areas, but our missing piece was still the playground,” says Dr. Stephanie DeMar, the school’s principal.

Through a colleague, DeMar heard about Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses the recess period to teach skills such as respect, empathy and conflict resolution. When she and several of her staff members witnessed Playworks in action, they knew the Loma Linda School would benefit from this program.

The results have been astonishing. The school, which was racking up about 400 referrals a year from recess (and had been in the thousands before), had just four in the year after implementing Playworks. But the positive effects didn’t stop there: The program has helped decrease absenteeism from 12 to 16 percent to about 3 percent, and teacher turnover from 45 to 50 percent to 10 to 25 percent. Best of all, the academic rating went from Underperforming to an A+ Excellence Award School.

“Playworks was a transformational shift,” says DeMar. “It helped bring community to the entire campus, not just within individual grade levels and classrooms. The teachers saw the change in the kids and how it transferred back into the classroom, and they became huge supporters.”

Playworks teaches social emotional learning skills through play, because that’s when kids are most engaged and ready to listen. Coaches use games to teach students how to talk to each other and teachers, and to resolve conflict using simple tools such as rock-paper-scissors.

“It’s not about funding a recess program—that’s just the place that we’re working to teach kids how to be part of a community,” says Chuck Warshaver, executive director of Playworks’ Arizona chapter.

Chuck Warshaver quote

For Warshaver, the implications carry far beyond the day-to-day. “The big ‘why’ of what we do is about the dropout rate,” he says. “Roughly 50 percent of the kids at Title 1 schools don’t graduate from high school, which equates to a negative economic impact to our state of about $7.6 billion a year. We’re trying to break the cycle of poverty by giving kids the tools to be part of a community, and to take that right road versus the wrong one.”

Founded in 1995 in Oakland, California, Playworks rolled out as a pilot program in Arizona in 2011 at three schools. This year, the program is in more than 50 schools, serving about 32,000 kids a day from Avondale to Mesa, as well as Yuma. In the process, the model has undergone an important shift.

“Originally, it was one coach for each school,” Warshaver says. “But that’s expensive and difficult to scale. In year four, we opened up 12 schools with one coach spending a week a month with the recess team at each of the four schools. It’s been incredibly successful—the schools loved it because it was less costly for them, and it was easier for us on the fundraising side.”

To expand to 150 schools by 2020, including Tucson and Flagstaff, requires significant fundraising—and the near-term goal is $1 million. On March 2, Playworks is celebrating its five-year anniversary with a Power Breakfast at Talking Stick Arena. Five local executives are being honored for their support of the organization, including Valley sports legend Jerry Colangelo, Swift Transportation CEO Jerry Moyes, United Healthcare Community Plan CEO Joe Gaudio, Mobile Mini CEO Erik Olsson, and Deborah Bateman, Vice Chairman National Bank of Arizona.

“I spent an afternoon at Loma Linda, and I was so impressed that I became an advocate and supporter,” Bateman says. “If you get out there on the playground and see how these kids are functioning and leading, you recognize how it’s changing the culture and their lives.”

Story by Jake Poinier
Photography by Mark Lipczynski

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