Can a Game of Tag Help Combat Bullying?

New Research from Mathematica and Stanford shows a healthy recess can reduce bullying, improve learning time

    • April 17, 2012

Strengthening recess transforms the school climate, paving the way for less bullying and more focus on learning, says a new study from Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University. The randomized control trial specifically looked at what happened when schools partnered with Playworks, a national nonprofit that is currently providing healthy recess and other playtime to schools in 23 cities nationwide.

Researchers found that investing in recess and organized play can prevent bullying, improve students’ behavior at recess and readiness for class, and provide more time for teaching and learning. The study is one of the most rigorous scientific trials to find an effect on bullying in schools, and one of the first that evaluates a recess-and play-based program as a potentially promising school-based solution.

“Our research shows that Playworks makes a difference. Teachers in Playworks schools reported less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess relative to control school teachers,” said Susanne James-Burdumy, Ph.D., associate director of research at Mathematica. “Playworks also facilitated students’ transitions back to classroom learning.”

The study compared schools using Playworks to a control group of similar schools without the program during the 2010-2011 school year in five cities across the country. Researchers found the following ways in which Playworks improves the school climate:

  • Less Bullying. Teachers in Playworks schools reported less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess than teachers in control schools.
  • Better Recess Behavior and Readiness for Class. Teachers at Playworks schools tended to report better student behavior at recess and readiness for class than teachers at control schools, and they were more likely to report that their students enjoyed adult-organized recess activities.
  • More Time for Teaching. Teachers in Playworks schools reported having fewer difficulties and spending significantly less time transitioning to learning activities after recess than teachers in control schools. Playworks students were also more likely than control students to report better behavior and attention in class after sports, games and play.
  • Safer Schools. Teachers in Playworks schools perceived that students felt safer and more included at recess, compared to teachers in control schools.
  • Satisfied Teachers. Nearly 100 percent of teachers in Playworks schools reported that they wanted the program in their school again the following year.

RECESS AS A VITAL OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE SCHOOLS

Recess and other school-based play time are some of the least studied elements of the school day. Principals and teachers often say, however, that a bad recess period has a negative effect on the entire school day.

“This research confirms what we have seen as schools across the nation partner with Playworks to provide kids with healthy play every day. These new findings, taken together with existing data, tell us that kids better relate with one another, resolve conflicts constructively, get plenty of physical activity on the playground and return to class focused and ready to learn,” said Nancy Barrand, special advisor for program development at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). “Increasingly, health and education leaders are recognizing that recess and play are effective ways to strengthen schools and foster children’s social, emotional and physical development.”

This new research, sponsored by RWJF, contributes to a growing body of evidence that a safe, healthy recess environment is a key driver of better behavior and learning.

A recent University of California, San Francisco study compared physical and emotional health outcomes between students who receive Playworks and control students and found that students exposed to Playworks fared better. In another evaluation, the Harvard Family Research Project credited Playworks with improving cooperation among students and strengthening bonds among students and between kids and adults in school. In Baltimore, the Open Society Institute saw suspensions plummet at schools that partnered with Playworks.

“For our education system to succeed, our schools need to be able to create the conditions for learning,” said Jill Vialet, CEO and founder of Playworks. “The good news is that we’ve developed a model that can be replicated almost anywhere and produces positive and measurable results.”


About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable and timely change. For nearly 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime.

About Playworks

Playworks is a nonprofit organization that places trained, full-time adults in low-income schools to provide opportunities for healthy play during recess and class time. Playworks activities are designed to engage students in physical activity, foster social skills like cooperation and conflict resolution, improve students’ ability to focus on class work, decrease behavioral problems and improve school climate.

About Mathematica Policy Research

Mathematica Policy Research seeks to improve public well-being by conducting studies and assisting clients with program evaluation and policy research, survey design and data collection, research assessment and interpretation and program performance/data management. Its clients include foundations, federal and state governments and private-sector and international organizations. The employee-owned company, with offices in Princeton, NJ; Ann Arbor, MI; Cambridge, MA; Chicago, IL; Oakland, CA; and Washington, DC; has conducted some of the most important studies of education, health care, nutrition, international, disability, family support, employment, and early childhood policies and programs.

About the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University

The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University partners with communities to carry out three inter-related goals. Develop Leadership: Build relationships and capacity among community organizations to identify shared challenges; foster partnership between the university and community to engage in evidence-based inquiry and decision-making to find common solutions related to youth and communities. Conduct Research: Collect and analyze data to understand youth across contexts and across a range of developmental domains; engage in high-quality evaluation of youth-serving programs and services. Effect Change: Support community stakeholders to translate research findings into actionable knowledge, and to identify the most effective levers for programmatic and policy improvement.