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Recess coach is putting the 'play' back in playground
by: L.E. BASKOW, Jonathan Blasher is overseeing the rollout of the nonprofit Playworks program at eight Portland schools this year, including Rosa Parks Elementary School.

Recess at many public schools isn't what it used to be.

Many schoolyard games - such as tag - have been discouraged because kids play too rough and the conflicts carry over into class time afterward, educators say.

'We haven't played tag for a long time,' says Tamala Newsome, principal at Rosa Parks School in North Portland. 'If someone gets pushed down, it's not intentional but you can't spend time resolving it. … They're missing their instruction time. That's just not OK.'

Now, tag and other schoolyard games have a chance to make a comeback.

Rosa Parks and seven other Portland Public Schools are hiring a full-time recess coach through a national nonprofit called Playworks, which aims to put the play back in playground.

The program places a coach in each school to lead students in games at recess, teach conflict management and leadership skills on and off the playground, run sports leagues after school and pop into classrooms during the day to get kids moving and focused back on learning.

'It's the power of play,' says Jonathan Blasher, a Eugene native who recently moved from California to oversee the rollout of Playworks' debut in Oregon. 'It's not just silly games, but it can teach a lot of important social skills and is used to improve education.'

Positive atmosphere

There's research to back him up. A study published in January's Pediatrics journal found that recess helps kids behave better in the classroom.

In addition, an outside evaluation of Playworks - formerly called Sports4Kids - after its first year at a Boston elementary school in 2006 reported that it resulted in fewer fights and conflicts at recess, fewer kids asking to stay inside at recess and a more 'positive atmosphere' overall that helped contribute to a better learning environment.

Since starting up in 1996 in Oakland, Playworks has expanded to New Orleans, San Jose, Washington, D.C., Boston and Baltimore and is opening its Portland, Newark and Los Angeles programs this year.

Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded Playworks an $18 million grant to expand to 650 additional schools and 27 cities by 2012. Other funding comes from a host of philanthropies and individual donors.

The program is meant for low-income urban schools that receive Title 1 money because a high percentage their students receive free or reduced-price meals.

Playworks covers half the cost of the program at each school, and the schools pay the other half: $23,500, usually dipping into their Title 1 funds.

Rock, paper, scissors

Newsome, at Rosa Parks, says she's sure it will be worth it. She and eight other principals this past April saw the program in action when a coach came to their schools for a week-long demonstration.

'I was kind of skeptical at first,' she says. 'What are we going to see in a week? But we were amazed. It was powerful.'

After recess every day that week, the office was eerily quiet, Newsome recalls.

Kids didn't get into disputes on the playground because they'd learned to resolve their own conflicts through one of Playworks' signature techniques: the age-old game of rock, paper, scissors, also called Ro Sham Bo.

Newsome says what she especially loved about the program was the attitude it inspired among her kids. 'They don't focus on the winner and loser,' she says. 'They focus on how to play. That becomes the culture.'

Blasher says kids will learn games like four-square, sharks and minnows and Double Dutch and teach them to their siblings and friends in other schools.

And yes, tag is back - as long as it involves 'butterfly tagging,' a safe way to tag the other child with a light tap on the shoulders, arms or upper back, he says. 'Like a butterfly landing on your shoulder.'

The other participating schools in Portland this year are: Sitton in North Portland; Bridger and Grout in Southeast; King, Jason Lee and Rigler in Northeast; and Markham in Southwest.

Blasher says he hopes to double the number of Portland schools and expand to surrounding districts next year.

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