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Pulse: New recess program keeps the peace

February 19, 2010

If there's anyplace that kids rule, it's the playground, right? Think again. Portland Public Schools principals and teachers say they have seen big reductions in foul play, hurt feelings and fights at recess since bringing in "play coaches."

A newsletter for families in Portland Public Schools

February 2010: In this issue

1. High School System Design: What's next?
2. K-8 exchange: District staff, parents meet
3. PPS, teachers association reach tentative agreement
4. New recess program keeps the peace
5. Wilson cheerleaders take championship — again
6. Helping Haiti: Many methods, one goal
7. Why all the drama? Productions abound throughout PPS
8. School district alters diploma requirements
9. Lincoln back on top in U.S. Constitution contest
10. Districtwide college information night is March 8
11. Potential math programs on display

Although supervised, recess remains the most freewheeling part of students' school day.

"It's the final frontier in the educational system," says Jonathan Blasher, Portland executive director of the nonprofit organization Playworks, which employs play coaches in 170 low-income schools nationwide — including, most recently, at nine PPS schools.

Playworks supporters say a lack of structure can lead to disputes, which coaches seek to prevent by teaching students kickball, foursquare, tetherball and other playground games, along with strategies to resolve disagreements.

"Conflicts that start on the playground can take up a whole afternoon for me and for students," says Jane Fielding, principal of Sitton Elementary School. "We still have conflicts, but they aren't daily. They aren't monumental anymore."

(The New York Times wrote about Playworks on March 14.)

On a sunny day in January, Sitton students competed in sprint races, played kickball and soccer, and jump-roped. Ruby Buckley, the school's Playworks coach, moved from station to station joining in games but also mediating disputes, including one involving a boy who was upset about whether a kickball had gone out of bounds.

Let’s play
Learn about Playworks from its director and from Sitton Elementary School students.

Charles Fitz, a student management specialist at Sitton, says he sees fewer fights and arguments with Playworks on board.

"Before, kids would come out and just wrestle and run around," Fitz says. "Now everybody plays."

At Woodlawn K-8 School, students lined up to play "switch," a fast-paced game similar to musical chairs. When students landed in a spot at the same time, they played "rock-paper-scissors" to decide who stayed in the game — a basic but apparently effective dispute resolution method in the Playworks toolkit.

"The most common problem out here is kids just getting too aggressive," says Matt Ferro, the Playworks coach at Woodlawn. "They say some words, then start pushing, then fight."

In addition to recess activities, Playworks coaches invite about a dozen students to become "junior coaches" to help ensure games run smoothly. They work with individual classes to introduce new activities, organize sports leagues (including girls basketball and co-ed volleyball) and run afterschool programs.

PPS schools with Playworks coaches are Bridger, Grout, King, Jason Lee, Markham, Rigler and Rosa Parks elementary schools, along with Sitton and Woodlawn.

Schools pay $23,500 of the $55,000 it costs annually to run the program; Playworks covers the remainder. Fielding says the program has already become one of her top budget priorities.

Adds John Holenstein, a PE teacher at Woodlawn: "I see firsthand a decrease in behavioral issues on playgrounds because I'm the guy kids will come running up to, saying, 'Johnny pulled my hair!' and so on. It brings peace and calm to the whole school. And the kids love it."

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