Some of my worst memories are standing on the elementary school playground hoping to be picked for games. I used to dread recess and would ask the teacher if I could erase the board or organize the blocks instead—I was not a super cool kid.

As an adult reading about the importance of those developmental years and the positive impact of healthy play, I realized I missed out. That is when I discovered Playworks – an organization whose mission is to use meaningful play to improve the health and well-being of children.

As a Playworks volunteer, I’ve discovered the chaotic, aggressive and sometimes violent playground I grew up on no longer has to be the norm. I’ve learned schools can improve all aspects of their students’ daily life by focusing on healthy play.

Playworks is a national nonprofit organization that supports learning by providing safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity to schools at recess and throughout the school day.

The organization reaches more than 130,000 students in some 300 schools in more than 23 cities nationwide. In 2009, Jewish Portlander Jonathan Blasher brought the program to Oregon, where it serves 29 schools and reaches nearly 12,000 students daily.

Playworks works to solve a fundamental problem in our schools – not enough time, space and funding for healthy play. Polls have shown that 1 in 4 elementary schools no longer provide daily recess.

You might wonder why recess is so important. After all, as a society, we tend to emphasize the importance of work and class time. Playworks argues that the right kind of playtime can make class time more effective.

“We don’t encourage just any kind of play; we want kids to spend recess time in a way that is positive and constructive,” says Blasher.

Playworks has devised a groundbreaking in-school program to address three problem areas for today’s youth. First, the rise of technology and sedentary lifestyles has caused a reduction in physical activity for our nation’s youngsters, increasing the risk of obesity and heart disease. Increased use of technology also has weakened the social-emotional skill set of students as their face-to-face interactions decrease.

Chaotic, aggressive and inactive recess time also affects class time. Coach Jory Card, Playworks program coordinator at Marysville Elementary School in Portland, has seen a dramatic shift in kids at his school. “Since we have been at Marysville, there is less bullying on the recess yard because our games teach students to solve their own conflicts and positively support each other,” says Card, who has a degree in family studies. This means that kids do not come back into the classroom still in conflict from the playground. “They head back to class ready to learn.”

The Playworks philosophy of harnessing the power of play to improve students’ physical health, reduce bullying and reclaim lost teaching time also is backed by a large body of research. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics addresses the physical, cognitive, social and emotional values of play. It found, “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity and physical, cognitive and emotional strength.” The study adds that the right kind of play is essential for brain development in young children and teaches children how to engage and interact with the world around them. [Ginsburg, Kenneth R. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” The American Academy of Pediatrics, No. 1, Jan. 1, 2007, pp. 182-191.]

Playworks and its coaches use studies to develop their play programs, explains Playworks Communications Director Cindy Wilson. “We use play as a positive tool to help students develop leadership, conflict resolution and teamwork skills. Our program also shifts behavior and accelerates learning in the classroom.”

Surveys of principals and teachers in Playworks’ schools reveal that this amazing program works (see box).

Playworks hopes that within the next few years every child in America will have a chance to play every day.

“Our vision is that every kid in the Pacific Northwest will have a Playworks experience at least once before they leave elementary school,” says Blasher. He hopes that the scientifically proven benefits of meaningful play and physical activity for the social-emotional development of youth will become part of the larger education- and health-reform conversation.

For myself, I am finally getting the chance to re-form my awful memories of the playground by creating new ones as a Playworks volunteer. I have learned to play Cinderella Dodgeball from first-graders, watched kids problem solve better than many adults I know and spent more time outside in the past few months than I have in the past few years – rain doesn’t stop us from getting outside and playing!

If you want to get Playworks in your area or see how you can change kids’ lives, visit We know the benefits are tangible, we know that play works!

Surveys of principals and teachers in Playworks’ schools reveal:

86% report that incidents of bullying during recess have decreased.

84% of staff report a decrease in the amount of time spent transitioning from recess to the
classroom – which means more time for learning.

85% of schools report students were more engaged in school since having the program.

72% of students report Playworks made them want to attend school more.

89% of school staff reports that Playworks increased the level of cooperation among studentsin the classroom.

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