Kids who might have sat off to the side, too nervous to participate, feel secure enough to join a game of Four Square. A pack of kids who used to dominate the soccer field while others looked on might now open up to more students through Playworks’s “line soccer” game, which involves constant turnover among the teams. A fourth-grade junior coach might oversee a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors to solve a dispute over whose turn it is, preventing a grudge from festering. A pile of hula hoops that used to sit untouched might now be a favorite toy. “It sets a tone where everyone is safe to try,” said Elizabeth Cushing, the president and chief operating officer of Playworks.
Discipline rates are down, and that’s not unique to Laurel Dell. According to Playworks’s 2016 annual survey of more than 7,400 teachers and school staff, conflicts have decreased, cooperation is up, and students are more likely to focus and participate in classroom activities. While that survey is internal, a 2012 trial conducted by researchers at Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University found similar benefits.
But isn’t there an argument to be made in favor of unstructured play? Don’t kids need a chance to just “be kids,” and is it really wise for adults to encroach on their playground domain? The structured-unstructured dichotomy is “really a false choice in my mind,” Vialet, who acknowledges that the organization has received some pushback for being too structured, said. Kids, she said, are allowed, even encouraged, to create their own games and rules; Playworks simply gives them the tools to do that.
Without structure, Vialet said, there are fewer opportunities for kids to be successful in directing their own play. And Playworks coaches can’t be everywhere at once, said Cushing. Coaches will start a game, teach the kids how to play, make sure they’ve got it, and then move to a different part of the playground. “With increased structures, that actually creates opportunities to play more games,” Gonzalez said. “There’s more interaction.”
Harvard’s Shonkoff—who also dislikes the term recess “because it implies withdrawing or disengaging from the serious business of school”—said that where some kids are able to engage in free, unstructured play on their own, without much prodding, others may need more “scaffolding” or coaching in how to play, particularly if they’ve grown up in a home or neighborhood where they haven’t had the time and space to direct their own play. And, he said, the “right” kind of play can produce the “right” kind of academic achievement because, regardless of the situation, kids will be learning valuable skills. What really matters, he said, is that kids are surrounded by adults both in the classroom and on the playground who are trained in child development.
The CDC has been funding research about how to improve physical education and recess in schools, and in November will release a brief outlining strategies schools can use to foster a positive recess experience. Francesca Zavacky, a senior program manager with the Society of Health and Physical Educators who has been working with the CDC, said she’s worked in schools where adults simply stood off to the side, as far away from the children as possible, during recess. “There was absolutely no training,” she said. Schools, she said, need to have clear policies around recess and refrain from tying it to discipline. “It’s not appropriate to use [taking recess away] as a bargaining chip for behavior,” she said. Nor is it appropriate to assign laps as punishment. “We don’t want to associate physical activity with punishment,” she said.