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The Power of Play at Midvale Elementary

Nov 09, 2015 10:18AM ● Published by Bryan Scott

By Stephanie Lauritzen

Last August, Boston transplant Brendan Toohey moved to Utah seeking new experiences and service opportunities. He knew he was interested in volunteer work, and after a quick Google search, felt immediately drawn to Playworks. Playworks, a recess program dedicated to utilizing the “power of play,” strives to improve the learning environment for both students and teachers by teaching problem-solving skills during recess. 

 “I’m still a kid at heart,” Toohey admitted, ‘So I’m thrilled that I get to do this every day.”  

As a Playworks coach, Toohey organizes activities each day for the 12 recess sessions and 800 students at Midvale Elementary. “This isn’t structured play; I organize places for tag, soccer, and creative play. By doing this I create easy and productive play that is both physically and emotionally safe,” Toohey said. Spending recess time playing productively allows students to go back into the classroom ready to learn, and prevents behavior issues that could otherwise take a student out of their learning environment. 

Ben Cromwell, the program director at Playworks Utah, notes that students often bring the skills they learn at recess with a Playworks coach back into the classroom, from learning to share a toy to remembering to include others in their play.  “Students return from recess more willing to engage with their peers, and engage with teachers. Schools with the Playworks program see a dramatic reduction in behavior incidents.” 

Playworks originated in California in 1996 when founder Jill Vialet met with an Oakland elementary school principal who felt overwhelmed by behavior issues occurring during recess. Vialet decided to “transform recess and the school day with safe and healthy play so teachers can teach and kids can learn.” Cromwell notes that the resulting Playworks program hinges on the belief that “an engaged adult can proactively solve most of the problems” occurring in elementary school playgrounds and classrooms.  

Toohey believes in another aspect of the Playworks philosophy: “Using the power of play to bring out the best in every kid.” He also knows that sometimes recess can be more traumatic than fun. “Sometimes kids don’t have friends to play with, or they might be intimidated by the playground. My job as a coach is to help kids who might otherwise be alone. They learn that they have a friend in their coach, and that they have the opportunity to make new friends at recess.” 

The program also provides valuable leadership opportunities for students through the Junior Coach program, in which fourth- and fifth- grade students meet with “Coach B” for leadership training. As junior coaches, they act as positive role models for younger students, and as long as they maintain good grades, get to help Toohey during two recess sessions during the week. “When I work with the junior coaches, it is silly and fun, but purposeful at the same time,” Toohey said. “Junior coaches get positive experiences as growing leaders.” 

Toohey also spends time in the classroom working with teachers to help students learn value-based skills such as empathy, problem solving and conflict resolution. “These are life skills learned through play skills that relate to life both at home and at school.” Cromwell notes that working with Playworks coaches in the classroom allows teachers to show another side of themselves to their students. “Seeing their teacher play with them helps students trust their teachers, and therefore are more willing to learn in class. Playworks coaches also provide teachers with new classroom management strategies to help students learn.” 

Toohey was recently recognized for his work at Midvale Elementary with the Golden Trophy Award, an award given to the school best exemplifying the Playworks values of inclusion, respect, healthy community and healthy play. Toohey believes the support of Midvale students, teachers and administration help him build a successful program. While his contract with Playworks initially placed him at Midvale for 10 months, he is looking forward to extending his volunteer work for another year. 

“This is real,” Toohey explained, “and it’s pretty incredible.”        

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