Playworks: Scaling a Great Idea

Playworks, the only organization of its kind providing play and physical activity to low-income schools, started in 1996 in Berkeley, Calif., and now reaches more than 170,000 children in 380 schools in 23 cities, including Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

The philosophy of Playworks is that children deserve public school environments where they feel inspired, safe, and cared for. Playworks focuses on school recess as a way to increase physical activity, decrease bullying, resolve conflicts, strengthen leadership and school connectedness, and improve academic performance.

Even as school budgets shrink, parents are driving the expansion of Playworks. While principals initially want to bring Playworks to a school to help resolve discipline and other challenges, the impact is found to be much larger—on education indicators and physical and mental health.

Playworks provides some lessons about bringing to scale:

  • Bigger is different—and necessitates hiring people with expertise in information technology, human resources, and management.
  • People, people, people—a well-chosen executive director in each city can generate social capital, which can be translated into effective staffing, funding partners, and local visibility.
  • Communications is part of every solution—it can help change the national conversation about the importance of play to learning and physical activity.

Playworks, whose effort to grow to scale to create nationwide change is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, uses play to promote physical activity, healthy relationships, improved learning, and youth development in schools.