Playworks — an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that aims to "increasing opportunities for physical activity and safe, meaningful play" in American schools — was recently studied by Mathematica Policy Research, which works to evaluate the effectiveness of social programs nationwide.
The Mathematica study found that the Playworks program helped improve the schools where it has been adopted. In Mountain View, the program is in place at all elementary schools within the Mountain View Whisman School District.
The program is sponsored by El Camino at three schools — Monta Loma, Theuerkauf and Castro, where Playworks employees work with the children. At the district's remaining elementary schools, just the Playworks model is used.
According to the Mathematica study, children at schools with Playworks are bullied less, feel safer at their school, get more exercise and perform better in the classroom.
Though he was not familiar with the Mathematica study, district Superintendent Craig Goldman said that the conclusions of the report ring true.
"We know it has resulted in kids being more engaged and active during recess and lunch time," Goldman said. "We definitely would credit Playworks with much of the improvements we're seeing out on the yard in terms of student interactions with one another."
Reports of disciplinary issues have dropped throughout the district and students are paying better attention in class, he said. Though he wouldn't attribute it all to Playworks, Goldman said the program is probably a part of the puzzle.
"We believe students are more engaged during recess time and have fewer conflicts and are ready to learn when they return to class," he said. "When kids have an opportunity to get some exercise and they're not distracted by conflicts, then they're going to be far less distracted when they get back to class."
Patricia O'Brien, executive director of Playworks' Silicon Valley office, said the program delivers these positive results with just a handful of relatively simple steps.
Playworks "coaches" work the playgrounds before, during and after school. In addition to offering supervision, the coaches are charged with making sure every child knows the rules of all the common playground games — kickball, foursquare, tether ball and others.
Knowing how to play all the games is empowering, O'Brien said, and it encourages the kids to get involved, instead of sitting on the sidelines.
The kids also are coached to be good sports. When one student defeats a peer at foursquare, the next kid in line has been taught to congratulate the loser on his effort.
And if a conflict arises, the students have been given the tools to deal with that too — rock, paper and scissors. The simple game is a miracle worker when it comes to resolving conflicts, O'Brien said, admitting that even she was skeptical the method could be effective when she joined Playworks eight months ago.
"When they do ro-sham-bo they just turn around and say OK," she said. "It's kind of amazing that way. It's so simple."
The program is not free. However, the schools pay only a portion of the cost of the program, as it is subsidized in part by Playworks and by a donation from the taxpayer-funded El Camino Healthcare District.
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