- 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.”

Ms. McElroy said the days are gone when children were adept at finding ways to play creatively on their own. The rise of electronic entertainment and the decline of spontaneous neighborhood play have left many children ill-equipped to handle unstructured playground time; they don’t have the social skills.

“Kids by and large don’t know how to do that anymore,” Ms. McElroy said. “They weren’t doing it, anyway.”

Alexandra Penn, founder of Champions Against Bullying, a nonprofit that offers workshops and other services, agreed. She said more playground supervision is essential, as is specific training in how to manage bullying.

“Kids bully for many reasons and they also bully because they can,” Ms. Penn said. “Who’s stopping them?”

In addition, she said, it’s incumbent on schools to ensure that all children - including those prone to being bullied - receive the benefits of recess.

“Play stretches a child’s imagination and boosts self-esteem,” Ms. Penn said. “Children become more resilient, develop cognitively, learn how to problem solve, interact with others, discover all they can do on their own and get in touch with their feelings and those of others.”

Having recess coaches doesn’t mean that schools have lost sight of the benefits of self-motivated play, proponents said. Helping children get there is part of the plan.

“It’s really getting these kids more and more working together as a team,” said Marc Sickel, founder of Fitness for Health, a Washington, D.C.-area organization that trains school staff and volunteers to facilitate playground activities. “We assume too many times that the kids have the ability to work out their conflicts, when they really don’t have those yet.”

As head of a culturally diverse school, Ms. McElroy said, she welcomes all opportunities for cooperative learning.

“Anything we can do like this helps build a school community,” she said.

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