The Scaling of Playworks

Playworks junior coaches play rock, paper, scissors.

Playworks provides valuable lessons on growing a small, local organization into a national movement with broad applicability for other organizations that want to bring to scale ideas and contribute to RWJF’s work to build a Culture of Health.


The Issue

Since 2005 the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has supported Playworks, an innovative program that provides supervised, inclusive recess programs at schools across the country. Jill Vialet, who founded Play4Kids, the precursor to Playworks, saw the need, particularly in urban elementary schools, for a new kind of recess that included everyone, taught an array of games, and developed skills in youth such as how to self-regulate, organize, collaborate, and work with others. RWJF’s $43.6 million in funding enabled Playworks to grow from a small San Francisco Area nonprofit into a national organization and movement, spreading the idea that play is important for children’s cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. Playworks now serves some 1,300 schools in 23 communities.

This case study provides lessons and insights from the scaling of Playworks that may be applicable to other organizations interested in working with RWJF to build a Culture of Health.

Key Findings

  • Leadership in a strong visionary CEO is critical to success as is a talented chief operating officer who can manage a growing operation; know your limitations and when to seek help.

  • Develop a strategy for growth with an eye to scale, which takes a great deal of time. Scaling is more than getting bigger, it means building a movement so your model is adopted by others.

  • Pay attention to financial sustainability and put in place strong financial leadership and infrastructure.

  • Early evaluative work helps establish that the model works. Later a randomized controlled evaluation of outcomes can provide credibility and data to support communication activities.

  • Develop a communications strategy with video, print, and online presences to tell the story of the effectiveness of the model and its impact.


“With its emphasis on the development of key social and emotional skills, contribution to physical activity, and positive effects on readiness to learn and school climate, Playworks is something of a poster child for the building of a Culture of Health,” the study author writes. “In fact, it was the impetus for the inclusion of ‘play’ in the Foundation’s description of health as starting ‘where we live, learn, work, and play.’”

About the Case Study

The author reviewed documents from Playworks and RWJF and in 2016 conducted in-depth telephone interviews with 23 individuals–RWJF and Playworks staff, communications professionals, and other major funders of Playworks.

From the Blog

What I Learned from Scaling Playworks into a National Movement

Playworks CEO and Founder Jill Vialet shares the tough lessons she learned about scale during her journey transforming the school day through the power of play

Read the blog post