Play Time Is More Than Good Fun, It's Good Health: NewPublicHealth Q&A with Jill Vialet

Dec 7, 2011, 3:33 PM, Posted by

Jill-Vialet Jill Vialet, CEO and Founder of Playworks

Efforts to improve school education often focus on the classroom. But a growing body of research is finding that what happens on the playground at recess may be just as critical. The opportunity to play at recess is, for many children, the only physical activity they get.

Play time also supports better learning—a concept overwhelmingly supported by elementary school principals, according to a national poll—and builds children’s social and emotional health, giving them critical skills to help them grow to be healthy adolescents and adults, including conflict resolution, cooperation, leadership, self-respect and respect for others. Playworks is a national nonprofit organization that provides safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity to schools at recess and throughout the entire school day.

>>Read a Q&A with Jane Lowe, team director for the Vulnerable Populations portfolio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the impact of play over on the Playworks blog. And watch her TED talk here.

NewPublicHealth caught up with Jill Vialet, CEO and Founder of Playworks, to speak with her about the initiative and the overall importance of play.

NewPublicHealth: With so many concerns facing our children’s overall health, what was it that had you focus on recess, and drove you to start Playworks?

Jill Vialet: The thing about play is that it affects so many different aspects of a child's well-being. I once heard a representative of the CDC say that if physical activity were a pill, it'd be the most prescribed medication on the planet. We see it at recess—giving kids a chance to play affects their physical well-being, their social and emotional development and it helps with learning. Ultimately I came to focus on recess because I knew it had made a difference for me.

NPH: As the number of children living in poverty continues to increase, how does Playworks use recess to address issues unique to low-income areas?

Jill Vialet: Kids living in low-income communities have far less access to opportunities to play—both in unsupervised situations because their families are justifiably concerned about neighborhood safety, but also in more structured activities. They are far less likely to have access to organized afterschool sports, and low-income schools are also less likely to have recess than their middle and upper income counterparts. Playworks leverages recess and play in low-income schools to ensure that these students have the opportunities they deserve to develop the skills most directly linked to lifelong success: teamwork, leadership and empathy.

NPH: Can you tell us about what a typical Playworks recess looks like, and how it makes an impact?

Jill Vialet: Recess at a Playworks school looks very busy with five to six different games going on, most of which are led by the students themselves. Kids are using rock-paper-scissors to resolve conflicts, they are dispensing high fives and words of praise recklessly, they are having fun, engaged and tuned in to their dependence upon one another for a good game.

Recess at a Playworks school makes an impact in several ways. Perhaps most importantly, it presents a real opportunity for the students to control the world around them—to be challenged and engaged in a way that they choose and in a way that gives feedback that can lead to mastery of whatever the game or skill at hand happens to be. As a result, students at Playworks schools are less likely to be chronically absent, discipline and suspension rates fall, students report feeling more engaged and classroom teachers recover precious instructional time.

NPH: How can those who work in public health partner with schools or policymakers to bring more playtime to their communities?

Jill Vialet: One of the keys to Playworks success has been in our ability to meet schools and school administrators where they live. It's not that school principals don't care about their students’ health and well-being—they do. But they are so overwhelmed by the narrow set of standards by which they are measured, that unless you can show them how your intervention will help them to directly impact students' measurable learning gains, they don't have the bandwidth to take anything on. Playworks has been successful because we have a cost-effective solution to their group management problem at lunchtime and recess. Public health leaders can help advance the importance of play in schools by working to ensure that policymakers are aware of the broad range of benefits that stem from ensuring healthy, inclusive daily recess.

>>Related: Watch Jill Vialet speak at TedxABQ —"What Play Can Teach Us"

>>Recommended reading: This week in Education Week, Vulnerable Populations Team Director Jane Lowe poses the question: How can we expect children to learn and achieve when they are dealing with the effects of illness or trauma? Read the piece here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.