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Linda Mah
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Playworks: Serious Fun and Learning

Playground Program Provides Structure, Training to Recess

Kalamazoo Public Schools isn’t playing around with play.

Five schools in the district are working with Playworks, a national organization that argues that play is essential to learning the socio-emotional skills that children need to succeed in the workplace, classroom, and life. Because they spend so much of their time at school, the school playground becomes an important environment for learning how to enjoy physical activity, to play cooperatively, and to learn creativity and flexibility.

Playworks’ website quotes Jack Shonkoff, director of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child as saying, “Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn.”

Sheila Dorsey-Smith, KPS assistant superintendent for human resources, helped the program launch in Kalamazoo. As part of her doctoral studies, Dorsey-Smith was given an assignment to help the district in an area outside of her expertise.

Student Services had just shared information on suspensions and referrals. The data demonstrated showed that lunch periods and recess were problematic times for student behavior, which was something Dorsey-Smith knew from her own experiences as a former school principal.

“I decided I was going to look at how we did recess in KPS,” she said. In researching recess programs, she came across Playworks, which had posted its 400- page manual of games online.

“I was thinking about when I was in elementary school in the 1960s and early 1970s. I was thinking about how we could replicate all of those games.”

“Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. “But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education — not a substitute for it.”

Abe Alcoday, regional partnership director for Playworks in Detroit, said Playworks addresses those issues by leveraging play to enhance school climates and help children learn those key socioemotional skills.

“We’re empowering kids to be respectful around each other and to play with each other in a fulfilling way,” said Alcoday, who said Playworks started in 1996 and has been in Michigan since 2010.

Dorsey-Smith began introducing the Playworks model to activity helpers four years ago. Later last year, the district received a partial grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to fully implement the program in five elementary schools: Lincoln, Winchell, Woods Lake, Washington, and El Sol. The district supplemented the remaining costs.

Sixty district activity helpers were trained during the summer by Playworks staff members Karen Dunham and Matt Matthews. There are two Playworks coaches who spend one week each month in the schools teaching new games and helping the program run smoothly by providing consultation, professional development, and free resources. Hanna Holshouser works with Lincoln and Winchell, while Jamere Dixon works with El Sol, Washington and Woods Lake.

Woods Lake Elementary: A Magnet Center for the Arts Principal Dr. Micole Dyson said she’s an enthusiastic supporter of the Playworks model.

“It’s an opportunity for students to play and have a good time, and it provides them with an opportunity for leadership and to learn problem-solving strategies when there is conflict,” said Dyson, whose school also received grant money to have its back parking lot painted with game stations.

“There are several structural things that have helped us to cut down transitions leaving more time for play,” she said. “And the children are excited and they make positive choices. That’s a life skill that can have a real impact.”

Activity helper Kierre Stinnette, who is also the freshman football coach at Loy Norrix High School and known to the students as “Coach K,” said he enjoys the structure that Playworks provides. Organized games at select locations around the playground have helped reduce the confusion of recess. He also enjoys the layer of respect and cooperation that Playworks adds.

Watching students at Woods Lake scream as they run under a colorful parachute or play freeze tag with Coach K, they seem to be enjoying the serious work that goes into a good playground program.

“So many kids don’t play outside anymore because their games are on their phones or their iPads,” Dorsey-Smith said. “But for people in my generation, we’d live for those pick-up games playing softball or basketball or four square or freeze tag. It was what we did. It was the highlight of my childhood.

“Young people just want to have fun. They want to smile and laugh. And, for the adults who work with them, this allows the kids in us to come out.”

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