The Power of Play

A Commentary by Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO, RWJF

    • May 14, 2013

Across the country, elementary school principals and teachers will tell you, "as recess goes, so goes the school day." Under the right circumstances, the excitement and energy that children experience on the playground spills over into the classroom, enhancing learning and strengthening students’ relationships with their teachers and with each other. Of course, the opposite can also be true. Conflicts and bullying that happen on the playground follow students back into class, disrupting learning.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we've been learning about the power of play for the past eight years through our grantee Playworks, a national nonprofit organization that transforms schools by providing structured play and physical activity at recess and throughout the school day.  

Playworks gets results. I've seen it firsthand, and a growing body of evidence now shows that, when it comes to changing schools for the better, recess and play may be one of the most powerful and underutilized tools we have.   

Seeing Playworks in Action

Six years ago, I made my first visit to a Playworks school in Baltimore—one of the first sites to be piloted outside the San Francisco Bay area. There, I saw how the program transforms schools by ensuring that every child has the opportunity to engage in safe, inclusive play at recess. The kids weren't the only ones engaged. The Playworks coach was tuned in to them all, getting everyone in the game. Teachers were playing and laughing right alongside their students. You could feel that the bonds they were building on the playground were reinforcing the teaching and learning back in the classroom. Indeed, this school's no-nonsense principal made it very clear that she paid for Playworks out of her very meager budget, because it works.

Today, hundreds of Playworks schools serve hundreds of thousands of kids in 22 cities across the country. You could go to any of them on any school day, rain or shine, and experience the same power of play that I saw that day in Baltimore.

 

Game Changing Results

Since that initial visit, I've talked with principals, teachers, and students at many Playworks schools. Principals tell me they are spending less time disciplining students. Teachers tell me they can spend more time teaching because students return to class focused and ready to learn. Kids tell me how much they love their Playworks coach and why they look forward to recess every day. And parents describe how they've seen their children transformed by the positive energy on the playground.

But the program’s success isn't just anecdotal.

Researchers from Stanford University and Mathematica Policy Research recently completed a multi-year, randomized controlled study, looking at schools with and without Playworks in five cities. The research shows many benefits of the program, including less bullying, enhanced feelings of safety at school, more vigorous physical activity for students, and teachers reclaiming valuable classroom time for instruction. 

Improving School Climate

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we recognize that education is one of the most important forces in shaping health throughout our lives, and it's why we're deeply involved in schools.

Playworks represents a bright spot in RWJF's ongoing support of the growing movement to create a flourishing culture of health in America.  A big part of that is making schools safe, healthy places where every student can thrive physically, socially and emotionally. At schools with Playworks, physical activity, fun, and learning is going up, while bullying and discipline problems are going down. And that is definitely a step in the right direction.

playworks briefing page photo

At schools with Playworks, physical activity, fun, and learning is going up, while bullying and discipline problems are going down."

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