Straight Up Conversation: Playworks CEO and Founder Jill Vialet

Jill Vialet is founder and CEO of Playworks, a nonprofit that partners with schools to use recess and play to improve children’s social-emotional learning and experience in school. A recent RAND report found that Playworks’ Coach Service was one of only a handful of social-emotional learning interventions that meet ESSA’s requirements for the highest standard of evidence. Before launching Playworks in 1996, Jill founded the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, California. I recently had the chance to chat with Jill about Playworks and her efforts to promote healthy play.

Rick Hess: What exactly is Playworks?

Jill Vialet: Playworks is a national nonprofit which uses recess to promote physical activity and transform children’s social-emotional health. We partner with schools nationwide, providing the tools and resources needed to ensure that every kid can experience safe and healthy play.

RH: How did you get the idea to launch Playworks?

JV: I got the idea while waiting to meet with the principal of an elementary school while I was working for the Museum of Children’s Art. The principal was occupied with three boys who had gotten into trouble at recess. The principal turned to me and asked if there was anything I could do to help. This encounter led me to create Sports4Kids in 1996, which evolved into Playworks, as a solution for educators who were frustrated by the consistent problems that occurred during recess and were carried into the classroom. In our first year, we served two schools. In 2005, the organization was awarded a $4.4-million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, followed by an additional $18.7-million investment which supported our expansion. By December 2020, we’re aiming to reach 3.5 million kids in 7,000 schools.

RH: How many schools are you currently working with, and how do you decide which schools to partner with?

JV: Our focus is on elementary schools, and this school year we are serving more than 800,000 kids at over 1,600 schools across the country. We have a range of different services, and we determine the nature of the partnership based on the state of a school’s recess and the assets they have to address recess. That can be a coach, personalized training, or access to online support.

RH: What does all this look like in practice?

JV: To ensure that kids experience safe and healthy play, Playworks teaches strategies and games such as Ro Sham Bo to resolve conflicts, Fishbowl to learn cooperation, and Charades Tag to get kids moving on the playground. We make sure kids know how to play games with each other and resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise. There are four main ways in which Playworks serves schools. Through Playworks Coach, we place full-time Playworks staff members in schools to run all programming, lead recess every day, teach new games, and bring school staff into the game. These schools also have a Junior Coach program which helps fourth- and fifth- graders practice leadership skills by helping to guide games and acting as positive role models for younger students. The Playworks TeamUp model assigns one Playworks staff member to oversee programming in four schools by role modeling on the playground and training recess teams. Playworks Pro provides school staff with hands-on professional development. And Recess Lab offers educators free online tools to evaluate and improve their school’s recess. School staff take a quiz about their recess, and then Playworks sends comprehensive results and customized tips for improving it. School staff can also watch free videos which feature simple techniques to make more safe and healthy play happen for their kids.

RH: I see that Playworks has a Game Guide and curriculum to train staff in charge of recess. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how it works?

JV: The Playworks Game Guide features an assortment of games, including Dodgeball Switch, a game designed to get kids moving and improve their motor skills while teaching them to take turns with their peers, and Sharks and Minnows, a variation of tag which helps kids to develop their listening skills and sense of boundaries. School staff can use these and other games throughout the school day. We categorize games based on group size, ideal ages, and topics, so that staff can find a game great for their students. Each game also features variations so leaders can make it more complex.

RH: Recess is often celebrated as an unstructured time for children to explore different activities like sports, swings, or pretend games. How do you preserve the freedom and fun of recess while implementing the Playworks curriculum?

JV: At Playworks, our goal is to create an environment that empowers every kid to get in the game, navigate the playground on their own, or create their own games. While every Playworks playground might have different equipment, we organize it so that several games are happening at once and kids can jump into and out of any game that they want to play, and that every kid feels included. We want to help them discover their own abilities with leadership, collaboration, and conflict resolution so unstructured play is possible. We’re ensuring a baseline of safety for kids to feel comfortable to take risks, discover who they are, and play and learn from one another.

RH: Is most of your work done at school, or do you all get involved at the community level as well?

JV: We are part of the national Active Schools collective-impact initiative focused on promoting physical activity and healthy school environments. We also work with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to increase awareness of and resources for social and emotional development. We partner with other nonprofit organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, KaBOOM!, and City Year for trainings. We also work with corporate partners, such as Target and Salesforce, to generate awareness for the value of play and how these skills translate to the workforce.

RH: Shifting gears a bit: How much does all this cost? Where does the funding come from?

JV: The pricing of Playworks services varies. Rates are based on the service model, length of delivery, and travel fees. Schools and districts use a number of funding sources to bring Playworks to their playgrounds and classrooms. Some partner schools are able to tap into existing budgets. RAND recently released a report that determined that Playworks meets the highest standards for evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act, so some schools and districts are using those federal funds. Parent-teacher organizations often find creative ways to raise funds in their communities from neighboring companies or individual donors. For schools where more than 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, Playworks substantially subsidizes the cost, which is made possible by our incredible donor community.

RH: Let’s talk a bit more about that RAND review, which found that “the Playworks Coach Service is one of only seven elementary school SEL interventions to meet the highest criteria for evidence of impact under the Every Student Succeeds Act.” Can you talk me through what RAND found and what this means?

JV: This is actually the first comprehensive review to examine which social and emotional learning interventions qualify for federal funding under ESSA. The review examined findings from a Mathematica Policy Research study on the outcomes of Playworks Coach, and we were ranked in the strongest tier of evidence on eight or more outcomes, including class readiness, on-task behavior, transitioning from recess to learning, bullying, inclusiveness, student ownership of recess activities, student safety, and student use of positive language.

RH: Playworks’ materials explain that one of your values is creating inclusive playgrounds, through games like a version of dodgeball where no one is knocked out. While ensuring that the same kids aren’t repeatedly excluded makes a lot of sense to me, there are obviously plenty of times in life when they may be “out.” Do you worry about taking “inclusivity” to an unrealistic or counterproductive level?

JV: While some of the games we facilitate, such as the modified dodgeball game you mention, don’t keep score, other games, like foursquare, help teach kids that winning and losing are all a part of it and that you get back in line and try again. You’ll hear kids tell peers “good job,” encouraging one another in a way that makes it easier to be willing to try, fail, and try again. Additionally, students learn the importance of supporting their peers with high-fives and cheers, which make for an inspiring environment. When this kind of positive interaction moves from playground to hallway to classroom, school culture is positively impacted.

RH: It seems that the lion’s share of education reformers and providers nowadays focus on raising reading and math scores. Why focus on recess?

JV: Play is our first teacher. The playground is where kids learn to become leaders by collaborating and solving problems. These skills help them thrive in the classroom, workforce, and beyond. Playworks introduces games that increase the opportunity for kids to develop these social and emotional skills. In addition, we teach school staff transition techniques that save time in the school day for kids to achieve those reading and math scores. By integrating play into the education system, recess contributes to both cognitive learning and children’s social development.

RH: During the No Child Left Behind era, many schools felt pressured to raise these math and reading scores, and cut down on recess in favor of more time in the classroom. How did this affect what you all were trying to do?

JV: There are always pressures on time, and one unintended consequence of the increased emphasis on testing was to compel some school leaders to limit recess time. In other instances, the challenges of discipline problems at recess left some educators wondering if they could afford the time lost when conflicts followed kids back into the classroom. However, most educators recognize that giving kids a chance to play outside in a healthy and inclusive environment contributes to teaching and learning, so some schools turned to us to help them figure out how to ensure that recess contributed positively to school culture.

RH: How do you measure the success of your efforts?

JV: We measure outcomes such as a reduction in bullying, an increase in physical activity, kids’ sense of safety, and the ability of kids to solve conflicts. Among 657 Playworks partner schools across the country surveyed in Spring 2017, 95 percent of school staff reported an improvement in overall school climate; 97 percent witnessed an increase in the number of students engaged in healthy play during recess; and teachers reported an average of 19 recovered learning hours in the classroom.

RH: How has increasing attention to social and emotional learning affected your work?

JV: One way that social-emotional learning has affected our work that we didn’t anticipate is in the connection to chronic absence. It turns out that social-emotional learning helps to reduce chronic absenteeism (when students miss more than 10 percent of the school year). One way schools decrease chronic absence is by making sure kids feel safe and engaged so that they want to come to school. University of Pennsylvania researchers recently found that social-emotional learning and this kind of positive school climate are linked. At Playworks, we know that how kids play at recess shapes both.

RH: Last question: What are one or two of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your role at Playworks?

JV: One of the great things about leading an organization for 22 years is that you experience an ever-changing set of challenges—and it turns out that when you get one figured out, a new one arises. Over the years, though, there have been two major themes to the challenges. The first is getting school and district leaders to focus on recess. They have so much going on, and getting folks to see recess as a priority has been a stretch. There have been moments when concerns about physical inactivity have brought the importance to light, but the recent emphasis on social-emotional learning and the recognition that school climate has a significant impact on the effectiveness of teaching and learning has done a lot to help prioritize recess.

The other challenge has to do with leading a growing organization. There is the work of making play happen at the schools, and then there is the whole other business of running Playworks—managing humans, raising money, figuring out the most effective strategies for messaging, testing new programs. Again, the challenges have shifted over the years, but wrestling with the question of how you don’t just grow a nonprofit, but rather try and influence the educational system, adds a degree of complexity and challenge that keeps the work fresh and always interesting.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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