Playworks turns fun into lessons for life

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Takilah Haymond, 8, jumps rope at Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans on Friday. The school is one of six in New Orleans where Playworks, a national nonprofit organization, supports learning by providing safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity at recess and throughout the school day.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Takilah Haymond, 8, jumps rope at Arthur Ashe Charter School in New Orleans on Friday. The school is one of six in New Orleans where Playworks, a national nonprofit organization, supports learning by providing safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity at recess and throughout the school day.

For Jill Vialet, play is a very serious thing.

Vialet is the founder and CEO of the Oakland-based nonprofit organization Playworks and is devoted to rebuilding a culture of play that teaches children the social and emotional skills needed to navigate the world as adults.

On Friday morning, she visited the Arthur Ashe Charter School in Gentilly to interact with to the students and staff.

In New Orleans, Playworks is in six schools and has a staff of 10 people. Nationally, there are 23 offices and a staff of about 600 people.

In addition to Arthur Ashe, Playworks has programs in Akili Academy, Edgar P. Harney: Spirit of Excellence Academy, Morris Jeff Community School, KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts and Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School.

Vialet said the programs achieve everything from reducing bullying and increasing physical activity to teaching teamwork, conflict resolution, empathy, leadership and inclusion. The teachers have more instruction time, and the students return to class ready to focus and learn.

Vialet said she was inspired to start the effort while she was working in schools as part of a nonprofit children’s art organization. As she waited to speak with a principal, three boys — clearly in very big trouble — walked out, and Vialet said that the principal starting unloading about how “recess was hell” and looked at Vialet as if to say, “Do something, please!”

She said she started out in a couple Oakland schools, and the program spread like wildfire.

“It taps into a very real need,” Vialet said.

Through recess, class breaks, after-school programs and interscholastic leagues, Playworks provides structure to the play time. Along with a program coordinator, junior coaches, who are fifth- and sixth-graders at the school and want to get involved, are trained to lead their peers in a variety of playground games.

Vialet, 48, said she thought back to her childhood when she spent her free time outside playing with other children. She remembered learning some of the same skills from the older kids. On the school playground, the junior coaches are the older kids, and they learn leadership skills.

Vialet said she is comfortable with some chaos, but too much chaos can be detrimental. Many schools struggled with students getting in trouble during recess.

During the recess time, children don’t have to participate in the games, and they are allowed to choose from a variety. But through the games, Vialet wants to see the children realize that failure is no big deal. That conveys a fundamental understanding that success often comes only after many failed attempts, she said.

Kids learn to embrace challenges, she said. When they play a game where they are eliminated, instead of yelling “You’re out,” the students are taught to give high fives and say “good job.”

Conflict resolution is also a big element. If two kids disagree whether the ball crossed the line, they solve it with a game of “rock, paper, scissors.” She said that be using “rock, paper, scissors” to resolve disputes, there is a huge change in the vibe on the playground.

Vialet said she recognizes the importance of raising test scores, but she believes the formal learning that takes place in the classroom is only part of improving education.

“A test score is a proxy for learning,” she said. “Knowledge acquisition can be learning, but learning is a much broader concept.”