Back when Jill Vialet was a kid, she used to play with her neighborhood friends for hours at a time, unsupervised. It seemed unstructured, because no adults had established any parameters. But in fact, all their games had rules.
“We knew how to pick teams, resolve conflicts, there were spoken and unspoken rules,” she says. “There was a real culture of play. There was a real structure but kids owned it.”
In the past generation, emphasis on play has shifted dramatically. For one thing, kids are rarely left unsupervised for a number of different reasons. Add to that the trend of cutting recess from school hours (only 26 minutes per day as of 2006), and the opportunity to learn how to play for kids has been really cut back.
Vialet is the founder of Playworks, a nonprofit organization that coaches schools, teachers, and playground supervisors on how to encourage good play practice. In some schools, Vialet says, recess is considered a nuisance — a time for kids to get into fights that go unresolved, resulting in tensions that are brought back into the classroom and spill over into instructional times.
“If you talk with some principals, they see recess as a time of day that has a negative impact on school climate,” she says. “There are more suspensions and discipline problems as a result.”
“Recess is meaner than it used to be,” one Oakland principal told New York Times writer David Bornstein.
Playworks steps in to help schools create a structure for play, and to familiarize both adults and kids with the tools of play. “It seems naïve to think that kids are going to figure out how to do it all on their own on the playground,” Vialet says. “We all had to learn from someone.”
Schools deploy Playworks in two ways: they can hire fulltime staff person, experts in play, from Monday through Friday for the school year, or they can hire Playworks to train teachers, yard monitors, and security guards.
“They take a generative approach,” Vialet says of the Playworks staff. “This is where we’re going to play kickball, these are the rules to this game. And they help create ideas that the kids will inevitably own instead of telling them what to do.”
And that’s the point — to create a scaffolding for play, and to encourage kids to come up with their own rules.
Vialet says in schools where the program has been institute, school staff say they love their jobs more, suspension rates have plummeted, there’s less violence, more peer social behavior, and more intermingling of different kinds groups.
Playworks is growing quickly. With an $18.7 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nonprofit will expand to 350 schools next year, and will serve more than 100,000 students. The organization is building a training business, as well.
Vialet was interviewed on KQED’s Forum program recently. You can listen to the program here.