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The Hard Work of Play |   An Oakland program helps kids play better at recess and teaches life skills at the same time. |  By Emily Wilson

When Jill Vialet was growing up in Washington, D.C. in the ’70s, she attended a recreation center every day after school. With her parents working full-time for the federal government, Vialet spent her afternoons there playing peewee football and basketball. She vividly remembers Clarence, a big African-American man in his 20s, who always made sure she got to play.

“It was the ’70s and often I was the only little girl there,” says Vialet, now an Oakland resident. “What was so cool about him was he made it no big deal at all. If there was the slightest bit of guff, he dismissed it. He just created this environment where if we went to play another team and they’d say ‘You have a girl on your team!’ the boys on my team would just be like ‘Yeah, we do.’”

Vialet decided all kids need a Clarence to make sure they get in the game. Twenty years later, after many twists and turns, she founded Playworks—a national nonprofit that now works with 265 low-income public elementary schools—to make that happen.

Today, the fruit of Vialet’s labors is visible on the playground at Verde Elementary School in Richmond, one of 41 public elementary schools in the East Bay that has signed on for the Playworks program. Recess at Verde no longer means the kind of chaotic, barely-supervised free-for-all you see in many schools, with some kids wandering around aimlessly and others looking for a fight. Verde kids, who range in age from 5 to 12, use recess time to play soccer, battle it out in four-square, challenge one another to tetherball games, and shoot baskets. There are no fights: The kids settle disagreements about who’s out or whose turn it is with a quick game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

“Teachers lose a lot of time because of settling conflicts that arise on the playground,” Vialet says. “With us there to teach the kids to play, those playground conflicts don’t come up. We estimate each classroom recovers about 36 hours a year because teachers aren’t breaking up fights and dealing with the aftermath of recess.”

Eyana Spencer, the principal at Manzanita Community School in Oakland, remembers how much time her class wasted doing just that when she taught first grade at Markham Elementary School in Oakland 10 years ago, before the school had a Playworks program.

“We spent a lot of time doing apologies and finding out who had hit who and who had lost what,” she said. “When we got Playworks, I immediately saw the difference. We had somebody whose whole job was to make recess safe and fun.”

That’s what Colby Gordon, an Americorps worker, does. Gordon, a fresh-faced, relaxed young man whom all the kids call “Coach,” circulates and supervises playground activities at Verde. But really the kids themselves, with the assistance of some pint-sized junior coaches who wear purple T-shirts proclaiming their status, run the show.

As the name implies, the Playworks program isn’t just about encouraging physical activity. It’s about play itself—an essential activity through which, experts say, we learn to interact and develop socially, and to value fairness, inclusiveness, and kindness. Initially operating under the name Sports4Kids, Playworks, headquartered in an Oakland office near Jack London Square, was launched in 1996 at two elementary schools in Berkeley: Cragmont and Rosa Parks. Now at schools like Maxwell Park and Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, and John Muir in Berkeley, as well as many others, kids are learning to play games like kickball, basketball, and four-square at recess and after school—and to peacefully resolve their conflicts.


Vialet, now 46, has a casual, friendly demeanor that belies her many accomplishments. With her no-nonsense blond bob and athletic build, it’s easy to picture her playing rugby or basketball, as she did at Harvard University, where she studied medical sociology. After a post-graduation stint with the Campfire Boys and Girls in Alaska, where she traveled from village to village to teach swimming and art, she moved to the Bay Area to pursue her interest in socially responsible investing. In 1989, Vialet and molecular biologist Mary Marx cofounded Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA), a multifaceted nonprofit that offers hands-on studio art opportunities for youth—workshops, camps, in-school programs, and more. Like Playworks, the organization has made it a mission to bring opportunities to low-income kids.

In fact, Vialet’s vague plan to found a recess program for kids crystallized during a visit to the principal of Santa Fe Elementary School in Oakland to discuss the MOCHA program. The principal, who had just met with three little boys who had been fighting at recess, mentioned to Vialet that the boys weren’t bad kids, but she was seeing them a lot in her office due to their abundant energy and lack of ways to channel it. “Can’t you do something?” the principal asked Vialet.

Getting the Playworks program launched in 1996, Vialet says, was sometimes like “salmon swimming upstream.” There were very few on-site after-school programs in the East Bay, she says, and she had to cajole schools to let her staff come in and play games with kids.

“Now everybody and their dog has an after-school program,” she says. “But I have these memories of having to get the custodian to open up and how administrators didn’t want kids hanging around.”

Now, an elementary school that signs the year-long contract with Playworks is assigned its own full-time, on-site coach—a young person trained in conflict resolution, group management, and recess games. On board every school day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the coach supervises not only recess games, but also after-school programs and sports leagues. They also teach and oversee their own mini-staffs of fourth- and fifth-graders who volunteer as junior coaches. Together, the coach and junior coaches set up games, show kids how to play them, help work out conflicts before they escalate, and keep everything running smoothly.

The program may sound benign, but Vialet says her staff has encountered resistance in cities outside the Bay Area. “I think we are very much a product of the East Bay. Here there’s an open attitude and a willingness to try things,” she says. “It [has been] the perfect lab to figure out what could we do to make play part of the school culture and to really contribute to the health and well-being of kids. When we go into new communities, they’re a little more suspicious.”

Locally, though, Vialet says, the idea of play as part of the school day is accepted enough—as is her program’s good reputation—that she hears that parents touring Bay Area public schools ask if the school has a Playworks program, which she counts as a victory. Even so, some educators and parents still consider play a waste of time, and she still works, she says, to convince them that playing doesn’t take away from academic achievement, but supports it.

In recent years, too much fighting during recess has prompted some local schools to get rid of the traditional free-play break altogether. Another reason that schools eliminate recess is to free up more time to prepare students for standardized tests, says Joan Almon, director of the Alliance for Childhood based in College Park, Md. Almon is also the co-author of last year’s influential report, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, which emphasizes the need for play in kindergarten. “Schools serving children from low-income areas with a lower track record on tests,” Almon says, are especially apt to do away with recess. “They face a double tragedy,” she notes, “because children are so much more attentive after recess, so taking it away is counterproductive.”

Since children are playing less and less at home, Almon believes, it’s critical they have time at school to move around and socialize. “New research from the Kaiser Family Foundation says children consume seven and a half hours of media a day. That’s a lot of their day in front of screens and not much time to play,” she says. “Then middle- and upper-class kids, particularly, have so many organized activities, and many people are very fearful of letting their children go out to play. It’s almost like they are under house arrest.”


Dressed in jeans and a red polo shirt, Rosemary Mauldin, the principal of Verde, has spent the recess outside shooting baskets with the children. Now she sits at a playground picnic table, chatting with the students who flock around her. She playfully asks one child to use the word “mundane” in a sentence (“Ms. Mauldin doesn’t like to be mundane,” is the response), encourages another to sing, praising her beautiful voice, and points out yet another as a runner who travels to compete in different events and has won trophies.

“What’s going on in class?” Mauldin asks. “How do you like Playworks?” Several students respond that now they are no longer bored at recess.

But Playworks, from Mauldin’s perspective, does a lot more than quell boredom—it means happier kids, fewer fights, and more focus in the classroom. And although Verde is the kind of school where 100 percent of the student body receive free or reduced-cost lunch, and there isn’t a lot of extra money to throw around, Mauldin believes Playworks’ benefits justify the $25,000 or so of precious school funds that she pays annually for the program. “It’s character-building,” she says. “And it builds pride and self-confidence. The cooperation that happens on the playground and after school goes into the classroom.”

Then, too, many of Mauldin’s students and their families are under huge amounts of stress—health, financial, and familial—and play, she says, gives the children an outlet, a way to deal with that stress.

“Play is built into our survival system,” says Stuart Brown in a phone conversation. Brown, a Carmel Valley psychiatrist, founded the National Institute for Play in 1989, and published Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul last year. Brown developed a professional interest in play while studying the lives of Texas murderers, including Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower Sniper” who killed 14 people in a 1966 shooting rampage. A former altar boy and the youngest American to become an Eagle Scout, Whitman, it turned out, had not been allowed to play as a child.

“Play is done for its own sake and doesn’t have any obvious purpose except to be pleasurable,” says Brown, who ultimately concluded that play can be a powerful deterrent to violence. By providing a respite from stress, he says, “it takes us out of the sense of being dominated by time and inner anxiety.”


Playworks doesn’t just impact kids, says Hector Salazar, a Playworks program manager in Richmond and San Pablo. Salazar, who started six years ago as a coach, says the whole school culture can change when the program is introduced, ultimately becoming more open and welcoming. And that, in turn, affects the community. As an example, he talks about a weekend jamboree last fall, a day of playing basketball and volleyball, and other games.

“This was at Lincoln, a Triangle school,” he says, referring to the bleak Richmond neighborhood known as the Iron Triangle. “All the parents were standing shoulder to shoulder watching and kids were climbing the chain link fence to see. Nobody was keeping score and the parents were cheering on both teams. All the kids were high-fiving each other and encouraging one another. I got goosebumps watching. I promise you that wasn’t happening six months ago.”

Fifth-grader Christian Reynolds Martinez, a junior coach at Verde, might not know about all the benefits and leadership abilities he’s getting from teaching younger kids to play soccer. But he does know he’s having fun.

The back of Martinez’s T-shirt proclaims three of Playworks’ tenets: “Respect the game,” “Play hard,” and “Have fun.” He might want to add another one: “Help others.” That’s why he became a junior coach, he says—to help the little kids. Along with showing them the rules of the games, Martinez and his fellow junior coaches teach the children to use a quick game of Rock-Paper-Scissors to settle disputes about a ball being out or who’s next in line. The technique works pretty well, he says.

“[Without Playworks] lots of kids would be getting into fights and not that many games would be going good,” he says.

“Coach” Gordon, the Americorps worker, agrees. At the beginning of each school year, he says, he spends a lot of time getting the kids to pay attention. Over time, though, he sees his charges not only focusing, but also growing more confident, learning to get along with one another, and becoming so absorbed in the game at hand that they forget—for a little while—their problems off the playground.

Gordon attended Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, and then Sonoma State where he studied economics and played soccer. After college, he worked in sales, but says he wasn’t particularly happy or satisfied with his work. Now it’s a different story. “It’s rewarding for me,” he says. “To teach a game to kids and have them turn around and teach it to others.”

Today, Playworks continues to expand, with a goal of working in 27 cities nationwide by 2012—its coaches are currently working in 16 U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Boston, and Washington D.C.—getting a million kids a day engaged on the playground. Last year Playworks members led games at the White House Annual Easter Egg Roll, the first-ever national conference on play in San Francisco, and at the National Head Start Association. They’ve also worked with Nike to provide training to centers in New York and Los Angeles. Vialet says it’s not just the kids who will benefit, but Playworks mentors like Gordon, who see the impact they are making.

“I think one of the things that motivates me and inspires me about our expansion is the coaches. They are rock stars, and this is a foundation for building a service movement,” Vialet says. “Every young adult should have the opportunity of serving their country in a way that makes a difference.”

Eyana Spencer knows firsthand just what elementary school recess can look like in its rawest form. When she taught at Markham Elementary, she says, the kids didn’t even have play equipment—let alone tutoring in the fine art of recreation. “There was a giant yard of asphalt, with maybe monkey bars, and it was extremely chaotic and scary,” she says. “There were 350 to 400 kids. That’s a lot of kids with nothing to do but run around and hurt each other. It wasn’t safe. Often my first-graders didn’t want to go to recess and I didn’t blame them.”

According to Spencer, the difference that Playworks makes by providing a trained, caring coach to play games with kids—day after day, month after month—is startling. Since the coaches “really make sure they participate,” children get the physical activity they need but might not seek out on their own. Then, she says, “they can settle down and do what they’re supposed to be doing, which is learning.”

Emily Wilson is a radio, print, and web reporter. She teaches at City College in San Francisco.


Jill Vialetz
Monkeying around: Jill Vialet, founder of Playworks—a program that helps manage recess and after-school games at low-income schools—watches kids at Oakland’s Lincoln Elementary School during recess. Photo by Lori Eanes.