Creating a Positive Learning Environment

Playworks exists because, for many low-income children, recess is not a fun experience. Recess is where bullying happens, fights break out, and student become too upset to absorb lessons taught in the classroom. A 2009 nationwide Gallup Poll of 2,000 elementary school principals revealed that 89 percent of discipline-related problems occur during recess and lunch. (“Gallup Survey of Principals on School Recess”, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2010.) Principals block out time every day to deal with discipline problems from recess, and teachers deal with the aftermath. Additionally, many low-income children live in areas where safety is a concern. They often come from neighborhoods challenged by poverty and crime with limited opportunities to engage in healthy play with their peers. As a result, these children come to school not knowing how to appropriately engage with peers which contributes to a playground experience riddled with conflict. Students who return to class angry, frustrated and scared cannot learn. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes in its 2012 policy statement The Crucial Role of Recess in School, that “Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. Equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” ( Playworks has a solution to the chaos on the playground that maximizes recess and uses play as a transformational tool for educators and children. We believe that building a high-functioning, positive recess climate directly affects the creation of a positive school climate. A 2010 report entitled School Climate Brief from The Center for Social and Emotional Education, founded at Columbia University, states “Research supports the notion that positive school climate promotes students’ ability to learn. A positive school climate promotes cooperative learning, group cohesion, respect and mutual trust. These particular aspects have been shown to directly improve the learning environment.” Playworks places a highly trained program coordinator at each of our partner schools to run games and physical activity before, during and after school, teaching respect, inclusion, empathy and problem-solving through play. Playworks also trains student leaders, through the Junior Coach program, to resolve conflicts on the playground and beyond. Playworks gets all kids in the game, regardless of background, skill or physical ability. By using play, a universal activity accessible to every school child, Playworks creates a positive school climate where students know what is expected of them and their peers. As a result of this improved learning environment, students can do better in school. According to Playworks’ year-end surveys of teachers and staff, our partner schools have seen an increase in class participation, teachers have been able to reclaim an average of 19 hours of teaching time that would have otherwise been lost dealing with student conflict and students have experienced a dramatic reduction in bullying and disciplinary incidents.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

In 2012, Playworks was selected as one of the Social Impact Exchange's 100 Index in the category of education. The S&I 100 Index consists of high-impact nonprofits that have been carefully vetted through a comprehensive selection process. More than 150 experts have participated in a cross-sector collaborative effort to identify and assess the nonprofits that have been selected to be part of the Index.

In 2011, Forbes magazine selected Playworks Founder and CEO Jill Vialet as one of its Impact 30: a list of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. The magazine defines “social entrepreneur” as a person who uses business practices to solve social issues. The selection was made by a panel of blue ribbon experts, tasked with identifying “social entrepreneurs who are tackling the world's most intractable problems.”

In 2008, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the nation’s leading public health foundation, invested $18.7 million in Playworks because it believes that Playworks’ program improves children’s health. In 2012, RWJF invested an additional $8.5 million in Playworks to continue backing the growth of our program.

In 2013, Jill Vialet, CEO and Founder of Playworks, was awarded the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award. The James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards annually recognize Californians who are advancing innovative, effective solutions to critical state issues. Since 2006, awards have been given to 45 recipients, both individuals and groups, working in a wide variety of fields, including education, health, agriculture, economic development and the environment.

Playworks featured at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2009. The mission of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) is to turn ideas into action. Established in 2005 by President Bill Clinton, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) convenes global leaders to create and implement innovative solutions to the world's most pressing challenges.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Playworks’ primary partners are the Southern California elementary schools we serve. In our fourth year, Playworks SoCal currently provides our model physical activity and play program in 26 low-income elementary schools serving approximately 15,000 children in the Los Angeles area daily. Our partner schools consist of: Firestone Academy, Gateway Academy, Huntington Park Elementary, Inskeep Academy, Junior Collegiate Academy, Juanita-Tate Academy, Slauson Academy and Titan Academy in the ASPIRE network of charter schools; Bennet-Kew Elementary, Highland Elementary, Kelso Elementary, Payne Elementary, and La Tijera Elementary in the Inglewood Unified School District; Aldama Elementary, CNCA – Burlington Academy, Florence Griffith Joyner Elem

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

Playworks SoCal’s program commitment to success is reflected in our in-depth evaluation process and organizational fidelity to tested program components. Playworks’ evaluation methods include:

-Annual surveys of principals, teachers and staff at Playworks partner schools to assess the effectiveness of our program. These surveys measure the impact of Playworks programming on student behavior during recess, in the classroom and overall. As a result of the feedback we receive, Playworks updates and improves our program components to better fit the needs of every partner school.

-Recess Observation & Reflection: conducted throughout the year by the Playworks SoCal Program Directors, Program Managers, and Program Coordinators to help create program consistency across all schools;

-Junior Coach Assessment & Training: assessment conducted by Playworks Program Coordinators at the beginning and end of the Junior Coach Program with leadership training conducted throughout the year;

-Student Engagement Survey: conducted by teachers at the beginning and end of programming to measure changes in level of student engagement in a random group of students; and

-Program Quality Visits: conducted by Playworks’ Director of Program Quality which allows Playworks to identify programmatic trends in order to adjust training, support or program components to ensure high quality programming from all cities.

Playworks has been proven effective in improving school climate by virtually eliminating bullying with a program based around inclusive play and vigorous physical activity. In 2012, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s leading public health foundation, contracted with Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University to conduct a rigorous, randomized control evaluation of Playworks. The study found that as a result of Playworks teachers had more time for teaching, students behaved better both at recess and in class, and schools felt safer and experienced less bullying. Read the entire study through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s website. (

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Playworks inclusive approach to play gets all kids active during recess and offers more opportunities for vigorous movement throughout the day. The link between physical activity and children’s performance in school is becoming more and more clear. As reported by the New York Times in April, 2011, “...the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a meta-review of 50 studies and found ‘substantial evidence’ that school-based physical activity ‘can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores.’ Educators need not worry about losing precious teaching time: the report found ‘no evidence that time spent in recess had a negative association with cognitive skills, attitudes or academic behavior.’” A randomized controlled trial of Playworks found that children in Playworks schools spent more time at recess engaging in vigorous physical activity than children in control schools.

Every year, as one of our internal evaluation methods, Playworks conducts surveys of principals and teachers at our partner schools to help us learn more about the impact of our program. Survey results from our Southern California partner schools for the 2011-2012 school year showed that:

-91 percent reported an increase in the level of participation in academic activities;

-89 percent reported an increase in students’ abilities to focus on class activities;

-78 percent reported a decrease in the incidents of bullying during recess;

-81 percent reported that the transition time from recess to classroom instruction decreased, which enabled teachers to reclaim at least 19 hours of teaching time over the course of the school year;

-92 percent reported that Playworks had a positive effect on overall school climate.

We expect similar or better results in the coming school years in Southern California.

Playworks positively impacts children’s physical, cognitive and social development. Through our five-component program (recess facilitation, in-class game time, the Junior Coach Program, before and/or after-school programming, developmental sports leagues), Playworks transforms the playground into a place where students learn essential skills such as teamwork, conflict resolution, empathy, and fair play.

Educators and staff at our partner schools tell us that we have helped them create a safer, more inclusive school climate with student leaders who are able to engage respectfully with peers and adults and contribute to a positive learning environment. Playworks' ultimate goal is to create an educational environment where students learn how to interact with their peers in appropriate and respectful ways, practice safe and healthy behaviors, take on meaningful leadership roles, and become the focused learners their parents and teachers want them to be.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

With every school a Playworks school, children will be excited to attend school each day. Teachers are free to teach and children to learn. Without the fear of violence and exclusionary behavior at recess children engage in various games and activities. Children learn teamwork and leadership skills that they use not only at recess but in the classroom and in the community. Educational success will not be determined by your zip code as all schools will be safe, fun and rich with educational opportunities.