The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s leading public health foundation, announced a major investment to bring safe and healthy playtime and recess to a million low-income children a day. To reach that goal, the Foundation is teaming up with Sports4Kids, a national nonprofit that has pioneered an effective model for using play and classic games—like kickball, four square and tag—to transform the learning environment at elementary schools serving America’s minority and low-income children. (Editor's Note: In July 2009, Sports4Kids changed its name to Playworks.)
“If we want to improve the health and well-being of our most vulnerable children, we have to reach them before they get to the doctor’s office,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “An investment in bringing safe and healthy play back to school playgrounds not only helps individual kids, it reaps dividends for the entire community.”
In 2007, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation issued Recess Rules, a report that named school recess the single most effective strategy for increasing physical activity among children. Yet recess remains undervalued as little funding—public or private—is dedicated to improving the quality of recess. The report also noted that the most vulnerable kids, those who come from minority or low-income families, are the ones most likely to be shortchanged when it comes to recess.
While Recess Rules singled out the benefits of safe and healthy play to children in need, it also noted that the benefits of play go way beyond increased physical activity. For example, research conducted by Open Society Institute in Baltimore found that schools that partnered with Sports4Kids saw conflict resolution on the playground soar and suspension rates plummet. Further research by the Harvard Family Research Project, which tracked Sports4Kids at a Boston elementary school over the course of one year, found 83 percent of teachers said that student classroom behavior improved and 91 percent found kids more cooperative.
“Study after study has underscored the importance of physical activity for health benefits,” explained Jill Vialet, who founded Sports4Kids 12 years ago in Berkeley, Calif. “Principals are investing in resources on the playground because of the positive impact it has on the classroom. Healthy bodies are leading to healthier minds. It’s time we started taking play seriously.”
The organization puts trained adults on the playground to introduce classic games that are disappearing from schoolyards, like kickball and four square, as well as new games designed to build leadership and foster teamwork.
Sports4Kids coaches, many of whom are part of AmeriCorps, also give kids simple tools, like Rock-Paper-Scissors, to avoid fights and keep games going.
Sports4Kids works with local school principals and administrators, foundations, businesses and other nonprofit organizations in the community to identify the need and demand for the program. This partnership is a crucial element in the program’s long-term sustainability and success.