- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 14, 2010

For years, recess at Grout Elementary School in Portland, Ore., was fraught with the same sorts of playground woes common across the country.

Some children would play, some wouldn’t. Some roughhoused and got into tussles. Resolving those tussles, teachers said, ate into post-recess classroom time.

“Kids are not inherently kind to each other,” said Principal Susan McElroy.

The pattern was broken about a year ago when Ms. McElroy hired a recess coach to help children do what they used to do naturally: play.

Now, Grout has its own professional coach on school grounds all day to organize and supervise playground games, train children to be junior coaches, teach conflict resolution and serve as a mentor, Ms. McElroy said.

A growing number of schools nationwide are hiring playtime professionals to help transform recess from a free-for-all into what they hope will be a healthier physical experience. In some cases, that means hiring full-time professionals; in others, it might mean training school staff and parent volunteers.

Grout, like many other low-income schools, established its program through Playworks, an Oakland, Calif.-based group that this year will provide assessment, training and a full-time coach to 270 schools in 16 cities. Thanks to a $19 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other support, Playworks subsidizes more than half the $55,000 it costs for a school to have a full-time, on-site coach.

Jill Vialet started Playworks, then called Sports4Kids, in 1996 after meeting with a beleaguered principal bemoaning the problems of recess. She said that at schools with recess coaches, teachers report reclaiming instructional time that was previously lost to working out children’s problems. In addition, playing cooperatively and, in some cases, earning leadership roles as “junior coaches” build a sense of community among students.

“The return is a much better place to learn,” Ms. Vialet said.

The idea of putting recess into the hands of professionals, however, has drawn criticism from those who feel that childhood is in danger of being micromanaged by adults. Learning to play cooperatively is an important step in children’s development, and that includes learning how to handle difficult situations, they say.

Lee Igel, a New York University assistant professor who has worked with schools as a sports and organizational psychology specialist, said recess coaching is well-intended.

But the problems it is meant to address, he said - stopping bullying, encouraging inclusion, fostering cooperation - are too wide-ranging and have deeper causes.

“We’ve always had bullies, but it seems to be on the increase,” Mr. Igel said. He said he thinks that’s the result of changing social values “and how people and community are no longer there.” Those problems must be fixed on a larger scale, he said, and that has to start with a discussion of values.

In addition, Mr. Igel said, some of the hard lessons learned on the playground - being picked last for a team, for instance, or not gelling with other children - often turn into motivation for success, or at least lend perspective, later in life.

“You don’t want to set children up for failure,” said Mr. Igel, “but you don’t want to always prevent it either.”

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