Raymundo Barreles, 7, and Osiel Cervantes, 8, students at Denver's Swansea Elementary, settle a playground dispute amicably using the "rock, paper, scissors" method, taught to them by recess coach Eben Bowers.

Recess went better at Denver’s Swansea Elementary School last week than any week Principal Mary Sours can remember in the past ten years.

Kids were running instead of standing against the wall. Disputes were minimal. Energy was expended in a productive, healthy way that left youngsters ready for learning when they went back inside.

Oh, what a difference a week can make. And Sours and her teachers don’t ever want things to go back to the way they were.

“Teachers have now seen what recess can look like,” Sours said, “and they don’t want to give that up now.”

Swansea was one of seven DPS schools to get a trial “recess coach” for a week from Playworks, a California-based non-profit organization that operates programs in ten cities across the country with the goal of making recess more productive in low-income schools.

If funding can be arranged – and Sours is determined to find the $23,000 it will cost – then come fall, Swansea will hire a Playworks recess coach to permanently transform the recess ethos of the school, located in north-central Denver.

Give credit to Eben Bowers, the visiting Playworks coach, who last year ran a program in San Francisco, and now is a national recruiter. Bowers spent his mornings going into Swansea classrooms and teaching youngsters simple games.

He spent his afternoons implementing those games – things like Four Square and kickball and Hen-and-Chicks – paying special attention to those kids who normally hang back at recess time and don’t participate. Jabari Wimbs, Playworks program director from Silicon Valley, California, assisted.

“Believe it or not, a lot of kids don’t know how to play,” said Bowers. “The more athletic kids have all the power. So there are barriers we have to break down. We want to make it safe for any kid to get into any game they want to play. Giving them that opportunity makes all the difference. It builds up a kid’s confidence and social skills.”

Dispute resolution is big, and Playworks relies heavily on the time-tested “rock, paper, scissors” (aka Rochambeau) method.

“That alone cuts down a lot on the things that typically will escalate into fights,” Bowers said. That, and “high fives,” which are employed liberally to encourage youngsters to encourage each other.

Playworks origin: a frustrated principal

Playworks began 14 years ago in Oakland, Calif., the brainchild of Jill Vialet, who at the time was director of a Children’s Museum.

“I was at a school waiting to see the principal, and she was running late,” said Vialet, president and founder of Playworks. “She was coming out of her office looking aggravated, the way only an elementary school principal can, and she had three little boys trailing behind her.

“She started going on about why recess was hell, and how teachers found every reason to be somewhere else. Then she looked at me and said ‘Can’t you DO something?’ I was taken aback. I was there to talk about an artist-in-residence program.”

Eben Bowers teaches children the rules of a game on the playground at Swansea.

But the incident got Vialet thinking – and recalling her own childhood, and Clarence, the beloved park-and-rec worker who always made sure she got in the game: “I thought, ‘I could make it so the school had a guy like Clarence.”

The next year, she launched Sports4Kids, which later became Playworks. It’s the only non-profit organization in the country to send trained, full-time coaches into low-income schools to turn recess into a more positive experience.

Not a replacement for P.E.

The recess coaches don’t take the place of physical education teachers, and they’re not certified teachers. They’re mostly young, enthusiastic recent college graduates who are trained by Playworks to know and teach good games, good sportsmanship and good fun.

The actual cost of the program is closer to $60,000 per school, but grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have enabled the program to underwrite much of the expense while expanding rapidly. An $18 million grant from RWJF in 2008 is helping Playworks expand into 27 cities by 2012.

Vialet said schools will more than recoup the costs of Playworks.

“From a purely monetary sense, over the course of a year, Playworks recovers about 36 hours of instruction per teacher. It works out to about six minutes saved after every recess period, so cumulatively, it adds up over the course of a year,” she said. “Teachers, instead of spending time resolving fights, can spend time teaching. it maximizes value.”

Swansea fourth-grade special education teacher Cleo McElliott figures a smooth recess is worth even more than that.

“It takes 15 to 20 minutes out of a 45-minute block of time to get the kids to settle down after recess,” she said, as she watched her students romp with Bowers. “We’ve had too much chaos going on out here. Too much pushing and shoving. And we’d have kids lined up against the wall, standing there for 30 minutes, not getting to run off any energy. And all this impacts learning.”

McElliott said students need to run and play “but they don’t know how.”

“Some don’t even know how to play tag,” she said. “They just push a kid down and thing that’s tag. It really does affect the classroom. I hate inside days!”

Kids seek structure, predictability

By Friday, Swansea’s playground was deftly organized into small hives of activity. Bowers checked in on each of half a dozen different games going on in different parts of the yard, but the children knew the rules and were largely policing their own play.

“Kids really do like structure and predictability,” Sours said. “Every school has great kids. If you give them something purposeful to do, they will do it themselves, and you just need to monitor it. I’m seeing kids outside with a purpose now.”

Sours is not alone in appreciating the benefits of recess. A recent study of 2,000 elementary school principals nationwide, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found huge support for recess, even as many principals acknowledge they’ve cut out recess to meet other academic demands.

Still, four out of five principals believe recess positively impacts academic achievement, and two-thirds believe students are more focused in class following recess.

Sours said that while one week isn’t long enough to assess whether an improved recess will impact academic performance at her school, she’s already seen a decrease in discipline problems.

“When kids break a rule, they have to stand by the wall for awhile,” she said. “And I’m seeing fewer bodies by the wall. This is bringing out the best in the kids.”

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Read “A State of Play,” the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report on recess

Read “School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior,” a 2009 study published in Pediatrics

Click here for a peek into the Playworks playbook for ideas about active games that children can play to not only get exercise but also to learn collaboration and problem-solving skills.

Watch an interview with recess coach Eben Bowers:

Watch a video of Swansea kids playing on their playground: