Now in its third year at the school, the Playworks program has helped improve student conduct and concentration by getting more children to participate in an organized sport or schoolyard activity, said Cathy Baur, principal of Monta Loma.
According to Baur, before the introduction of program many children would spend their free time aimlessly wandering around the playground or congregating in groups, which can lead to trouble. "Idle hands..." Baur explained, trailing off without completing the idiom.
Things are different these days. On Jan. 27, Baur walked around her school's playground, pointing out five distinct Playworks-organized activities: jump rope, four-square, soccer, street hockey and a game called Pac-Man tag. Only a few children did not participate in a game.
"Play is essential for kids," Baur said. For starters, kids need to blow off steam, she said — an assertion that fifth-grade student and Playworks "junior coach" Idalia Lopez agrees with.
"If we didn't have recess, I think kids would be bad in school, because they didn't get their energy out," Idalia speculated.
But there are additional benefits to the program, aside from combating in-class restlessness and playground mischief.
"It's all about getting them to interact with each other," said Titus Ares, director of the Playworks program at Monta Loma.
Aries, who the kids call "Coach Titus" and Baur calls, "the most popular person on campus," said that the games provide a gateway to real life skills, such as cooperation, communication and conflict resolution. "We take the chaos of the playground and we remold it."
If a minor dispute arises, Ares said, the kids are taught to hold a quick bout of rock, paper, scissors; whoever wins the match wins the argument.
On the surface it may seem like a completely arbitrary solution, but each time a conflict is resolved peacefully this way, it reinforces one of the most essential of all adult skills. "They are learning to work it out," Ares said. "They are learning to compromise."
Additionally, the program recruits student volunteers to help Ares run the games. These fourth- and fifth-grade "junior coaches" learn leadership skills; they are taught the rules of the games so that they may preside over them with a level of authority and help ensure that everybody plays fair.
Playworks is administered by a national non-profit organization of the same name. The company was founded in Berkeley in 1996 with one goal: "transform recess and the school day with safe and healthy play, so teachers can teach and kids can learn," according to its website. Since then, it has spread to more than 300 schools in 23 U.S. cities and reaches approximately 130,000 students every day.
The Playworks program at Monta Loma is funded in part by the school's site fund, but it is also subsidized by the Playworks organization and money from El Camino Hospital.