By Sam Piha
(Note: This interview was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has several restrictions on people's ability to play. As a result, Playworks offers a number of play-at-home videos on their website.)
We know that building a sense of a positive community is foundational to promoting character building and SEL skills. We also know that play is very important for young people’s development. This is why we have devoted previous blog posts to the importance of play. Play comes natural to young people, but it is important that the adults take the time to think about and learn how to promote healthy play. This can include the teaching of conflict resolution and leadership skills.
According to Playworks, “schools and youth programs can and should create play environments that help kids be their best. Studies show that recess/free play matters: a thoughtful approach to recess/free play improves children’s physical health and social and emotional learning”. They help schools and youth programs make the most of recess/free play through on-site staffing, consultative support, professional development, free resources, and more.
We conducted an interview with Robert Sindelar, Executive Director of Playworks California, in late 2019, about how they help schools and youth programs make the best use of recess and free play. Below are some of his responses.
Q: How can play impact the school and afterschool community?
A: When youth leave the structured and safe space of a classroom, recess/free play can be an unknown. There are often new youth, unclear boundaries, confusing games, and a higher chance of conflict. Play is critical to the development of children but can be challenging to implement in the context of some school day and afterschool programs. Bullying, overt conflict, and injuries can be common during times of play.
In my experience with Playworks, it is typical for partners to join our program as a result of the high amount of incidents experienced during recess/free play. Youth’s frustration, conflict, fear, or isolation can carry over from those times of play into the classroom or the after school program and negatively impact the overall community. If implemented well, it is possible for play to have the opposite effect on the community.
Q: What does Playworks do to build a positive community?
A: The Playworks program leverages the power of play to bring out the best in every kid. We add consistency in rules, expectations, and leadership on the playground. We reinforce positive sportsmanship by incorporating a verbal “good job, nice try” when youth are not successful during a game, which is paired with a high-five. When adults are modeling this kind of behavior, youth are quick to follow. We also introduce rock, paper, scissors as a tool to reduce conflict and empower youth to solve their own problems. These tangible practices create an environment for safe, healthy, and inclusive play.
Playworks also incorporates a “Junior Coach” program. This is a leadership development program that engages a group of 4th and 5th graders who become role models for their peers by facilitating games at recess/free play, supporting other youth in conflict resolution, and building relationships. Student leaders on the playground hold both themselves and others accountable, fully taking on leadership during recess/free play.
Unhealthy playground tendencies flow back into classrooms and programs, impacting community. The positive impacts of play do that as well. Our Junior Coaches step up, being more helpful for teachers and more participatory in class. Healthy play fosters positive relationships between youth and their peers as well as relationships between youth and adults. Positive relationships build more trust and bring about a positive community.
Youth who were formerly causing trouble have turned into leaders. The faculty has been able to concentrate more on the curriculum rather than fixing the issues, and the classrooms have become more peaceful and a safer learning environment.
Q: What role do you see afterschool professionals having in building community?
A: In California, over 800,000 youth are served through afterschool programs annually. We are inspired by the vision of these children experiencing healthy play and building a healthy community because of it. Afterschool professionals, like all youth-serving adults, can leverage the power of play; it is not bound to recess/free play or a school yard. By incorporating healthy play into programming, they can not only empower the youth served, but build a healthier community at their site and beyond.
Q: How does Playworks support afterschool professionals in building healthy community?
A: Playworks offers professional development workshops for anyone working with youth, including afterschool professionals. Our workshops teach proven strategies to prevent and redirect challenging behavior, support youth engagement, and enhance opportunities for learning. Taught by professional Playworks trainers, each workshop draws on various learning styles and builds on core principles of youth development.
This was an amazing opportunity to learn how to engage with the youth we see on a daily basis better. And to keep things new and exciting for them.
Workshops include The Power of Play, Group Management, Game Facilitation, and Indoor Play Design. These trainings provide opportunities for afterschool professionals to understand how to build up youth leaders, empower youth to solve their own conflicts, and structure play for inclusion. These skills will begin to build positive community.
If you do a web search, you will find a number of resources for group games. Ones that we liked include Playworks and Playmeo. If you prefer video, you can search the name of the game on YouTube. Also below are a number of papers on the importance of play:
Robert Sindelar joined the Playworks team in 2013 as the Executive Director of the San Francisco office. Prior to becoming part of Playworks, he served as District Vice President with the YMCA of San Francisco, where he worked for many years. Robert holds a master’s degree in Nonprofit Administration and is an avid runner. His current favorite game is Ninja.
Playworks helps schools and districts make the most of recess/free play through on-site staffing, consultative support, professional development, free resources, and more. They also support youth programs and other organizations that wish to improve playtime. Organizations like The Centers for Disease Control, and City Year all look to Playworks to inform practice and policy.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.