Playworks Implementation in Eight Bay Area Elementary Schools

The Program Being Evaluated

The goal of Playworks (formerly Sports4Kids) is to address the physical, emotional and cognitive needs of elementary school children by coordinating full-day play and physical activity programming—during lunchtime, recess and after school—taught from a framework of youth development. By engaging students in structured play, at recess in particular, Playworks aims to improve conflict resolution on the playground, which may feed into improved classroom management and recaptured learning time once students return to class.

The program is promising, but evaluation can assist the program in terms of establishing its potential effects, improving implementation, and setting the stage for spread. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has funded an expansion of the program, and this project is coordinated with that expansion. RWJF is now following this implementation study with a formal test of program effectiveness.

About the Evaluation

The study, led by Milbrey McLaughlin, Founding Director and Rebecca London, Senior Researcher, at the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University, examines the initial implementation of Playworks programs in six San Francisco and Silicon Valley schools, and measures the effectiveness of the programs in two schools with already established Playworks programs.

The research addresses two broad objectives: (1) to understand the ways that Playworks affects the students, school personnel and schools involved; and (2) to study the implementation process, with a focus on varying school experiences in the context of vastly different school environments. The study will employ mixed methods (interviews, observations, teacher and student surveys and focus groups, and reviews of teacher time diaries) to answer four general questions:

  • In what ways does Playworks affect students’ recess and classroom experiences? The project will also study the development of leadership and other skills in the junior coaches, and examine any changes in students’ attendance, disciplinary problems, and academic achievement during the first year of program implementation in these schools.
  • In what ways does Playworks affect school personnel? Are teachers better able to maintain a focus on academics? Have Playworks strategies made their way into the classroom? To what extent does program implementation shift their views of recess, the value of structured play, their attitudes toward students and their practices for interacting with students?
  • In what ways does Playworks affect the school climate overall? Does the programming and philosophy affect school decision-making and practices? Do the youth-development practices of the program transfer to non-recess settings, and do student and family engagement in school improve as a result of the program?
  • What are program-implementation experiences at the new schools? To answer this question, the evaluation will compare implementation at the new schools with implementation at schools where the program has been in place for several years.

Knowledge and Impact

The Playworks Theory of Change describes the components required to bring about the program’s long-term goal of healthy child development in several domains. The literature review and related reports examine why increasing opportunities to play and be active may improve students’ academic and physical outcomes.

The study identifies the following findings from implementation of Playworks in six San Francisco and Silicon Valley schools, compared to previous years:

  • Principals at the six schools implementing Playworks for the first time reported more structure and student engagement at recess.
  • Playworks is associated with conflict resolution and use of positive language.
  • Being a junior coach constitutes an important leadership opportunity for students.
  • Class game time was highly regarded and served as a foundation for creating play yard change.

Key factors for successful implementation of Playworks include:

  • Early staff training is important for teacher buy-in
  • A strong coach was seen as key to Playworks’ success.
  • Coach turnover compromised implementation.
  • Existing school factors influenced Playworks implementation.

Playworks implementation affected students, adults, and school climate in the following ways:

  • Older students—especially girls—were less likely to participate in Playworks games.
  • Playworks had its largest effects on recess.
  • Playworks is associated with positive youth developmental growth for students.
  • Principals and teachers felt students were engaged in fewer conflicts as a result of Playworks.
  • Many teachers agreed that there were fewer conflicts returning to the classroom after recess.
  • Junior coaches gained important leadership skills as well as self-confidence and a sense of pride.

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Nearly half of Playworks teachers reported less bullying at their schools since Playworks was implemented