Evaluation of Playworks: Findings from a Randomized Experiment

Evaluation conducted April 2010 through December 2011

Evaluation Conducted By: Susanne James-Burdumy PhD, Mathematica Policy Research


The Program Being Evaluated

Recess in many public schools is often chaotic and lacks the structure to facilitate constructive play, which may lead to increased disciplinary problems in the classroom (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 2010). The Playworks model is designed to maximize the use of recess each school day to provide an opportunity for physical activity for every child, while also building social, leadership and conflict resolution skills. Specially trained coaches manage sports and games, maintain equipment, and coordinate activities with school staff.

Students have the opportunity to learn the rules of play, engage in sports, and participate in activities with pride and accomplishment; teachers acknowledge fewer classroom interruptions and an environment more conducive to learning; principals and school nurses are no longer confronting recess as a time for trouble, chaos and suspensions; and playgrounds, in many poor urban neighborhoods, are being transformed from an unsafe to a healthy environment. Expansion of this program to schools in poor urban neighborhoods across the nation is intended to transcend the social factors, and provide a pathway to positive health and well-being.

About the Evaluation

This randomized controlled trial evaluates outcomes of Playworks, a program for structured play during recess, school time and after school in poor urban school districts. The evaluation is the first randomized controlled trial to assess program implementation and improvements in school climate, physical activity, conflict resolution and aggression, academic outcomes, youth development, and instruction time that teachers may regain because classroom management is easier.

Summary of Methods

The evaluation is a rigorous cluster-randomized trial of Playworks’ implementation in 25 schools across the country. Due to demand for the Playworks program exceeding capacity in 2010-2011, only 14 of the 25 schools were randomly selected to receive Playworks for the 2010-2011 school year, while the remaining 11 implemented the program the following year. Pairs of schools were matched prior to random assignment, to reduce differences between treatment and control groups. Four additional schools were added to the trial in 2011-2012. Three of these schools were randomly selected to begin Playworks in 2011-2012, while one is acting as a control group for the 2011-2012 school year. The four additional schools will expand the sample size and may lead to marginal trends gaining statistical significance. The evaluation team conducted interviews with coaches and supervisors about implementation and perceived school climate. Students and teachers participated in surveys to measure school climate and student behaviors. Evaluators also observed students during classroom time and recess. An accelerometer measured students’ physical activity levels, and school records documented academic outcomes, absences, health status and disciplinary actions during Playworks implementation.

Knowledge and Impact

Playworks found the following significant effects in treatment schools after implementation:

  • Treatment schools saw a significant increase in teachers’ perceptions of student safety and inclusion at recess compared to control schools.
  • Teacher-reported student bullying was significantly less in treatment schools compared to control schools.
  • Students enrolled in treatment schools had a significantly higher opinion of adult-organized activities at recess than schools in control schools.
  • Teachers working at treatment schools reported significantly fewer difficulties in transitioning to learning activities after recess compared to control schools.

Marginal findings include:

  • Increased staff support for organized play during the school day in treatment schools compared to control schools.
  • Improvements in attention and behavior for students in treatment schools in class after sports, games and play compared to students in control schools.
  • Teachers in treatment schools reported less time transitioning to learning activities after recess compared to control schools.

The following differences in Playworks’ implementation across schools were observed:

  • Strong implementation occurred in 7 of 14 treatment schools.
  • Moderate implementation occurred in 5 treatment schools.
  • Implementation was stronger in schools with recess in the past and when coaches had past experience with the Playworks model.
  • Most students, teachers and principals had favorable perceptions of Playworks.

Three future briefs will include findings based on additional data from administrative records, accelerometers and observations of students during recess.

Discussion

While past studies have evaluated interventions on bullying, the Playworks model is an inexpensive bullying intervention that fits naturally into the school day. Playworks has shown significant increases in areas of youth development, including improved transition time after recess and greater attention and better behavior in class after facilitated play. The fact that Playworks found significant improvements in schools with both strong and moderate implementation of the model through a randomized-controlled trial is a compelling indication of program strength and effectiveness. Future briefs will address opportunities and impact on students’ physical activity using the Playworks model.