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Jill Vialet: Making Play Work

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RECESS: A break from class learning where students within a school go outside for ten to thirty minutes to rest and have free time.
You"re seven. You"re on the playground, playing tag.

"Tag! You"re out!!"

"You didn"t touch me, I"m not out!"

"Yes I did too! You"re out."

You know how the rest goes. There is an argument, perhaps a push or a shove, perhaps tears, teacher mediation, teacher frustration, finally a visit to the one-and-only Principal"s Office.

This situation is not uncommon on playgrounds across America. Recess has been referred to as "horror time" by some teachers, a half hour of complete chaos characterized by fighting, wrestling, punching, screaming, and madness. In fact, this allotted time has become so unmanageable and inefficient that many schools have either had to drastically decrease recess or eliminate it all together. In a Gallup survey, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 89% of discipline-related problems happen during recess and lunch; 77% of principals report using taking away recess as a punishment for kids. As a result of these issues and poor academic performance, one fifth of those surveyed have had to reduce or do away with the recess time altogether.

However, poor academic performance, behavioral problems, and health issues are all related. Recess and play in general have been proven to be critical to a child"s social and academic development during those elementary years. Most principals have said that students are more focused and more attentive after having recess.

Jill Vialet knows play: Play is her (it) Factor. Since she graduated from Harvard University, she has been engaged with different aspects of play and physical activity in the context of public service.

Before founding Playworks, Jill spent her time running a collegiate public service program, coaching soccer in Cambridge, being a camp counselor, and teaching Eskimo children how to swim in Alaska. For Jill, play is a precious commodity, one which she has spent the last 45 years trying to share with others.

Jill"s vision is simple, and her execution is brilliant. Through her organization Playworks, Jill believes that one day, every child in America will have access to safe, healthy play, every day. Playworks creates a structured recess experience for elementary school-aged children by establishing trained, full-time young adults as coaches on campuses. Through basic sports and cooperative games, these coaches create an environment which fosters sportsmanship, health and fitness awareness, focus, and fun.


In the 2012-13 school year, Playworks casino operated on-site programs in 22 major US cities and directly served 170,000 children at low income schools every day, and they have plans to expand to 27 cities by 2015.  The road to this success and scale, however, was not always a "walk in the playground," so-to-speak, and has been a journey that has required enormous passion and drive on behalf of its founder and her staff. "There was a point where I really didn"t know which way I was going to go. And it was super hard...But I really do believe that you have to maintain a sense of humor and be humble and recognize that this is your one chance to make a difference."


Jill believes that change in the world depends on unreasonable people, and she identifies her 120 AmeriCorps staff coaches as being the most unreasonable of all. She says, "Playworks has grown over the years not because of my unreasonableness, but because the young adults who come to work for us go out into the playgrounds and they, through the power of play, discover themselves as changemakers."Jill"s "Changemaker" mindset has allowed Playworks to expand nationwide and led her to be elected as an Ashoka Fellow. Her social entrepreneur was present long before Ashoka, however. She recalls being told by her high school basketball coach to always bend her knees. Since high school, she has continued to live life with "bent knees" because it means she will have to lead with her legs, which are the strongest parts of the human body. "Creating the preconditions that compel you to lead with your strength is a huge part of the battle. It"s setting yourself up to do what you do best and remain super focused."


The reason Playworks does indeed work is because it utilizes a bottom-up approach.

Jamila Hornesby, a Playworks coach, commented that the kids "don"t need someone saying "Don"t do this, and don"t do that." They need someone saying, "This is how we"re going to play the game today."" Playworks gives kids this structure and gives them the opportunity to play in a fun and functional way. Recess, when managed effectively, puts children into what Jill Vialet calls "The Play State." Because they are doing something different and exciting during a physical activity, their heart rate will go up, releasing endorphins into their body, resulting in happy and energetic children who are more likely to engage and participate in the classroom. However, when an educator revokes a child"s right to recess, she only limits that child"s ability to focus and succeed academically and socially. Indeed, in the Play State, kids are more aware and more engaged, both on the playground and in the classroom. This flexibility, spontaneity, creativity and improvisation that recess can include is where brilliance really comes from, claims Jill.

Fair Play

Remember that seven-year-old playground spat during a game of Tag? Imagine if you had thought about solving that through a simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Playworks has ingeniously utilized this super problem solver, which gives kids the ability to learn leadership skills, conflict resolution, and social skills with students of different age groups.


Playworks is designed to foster positive relationships between classmates on the playground. Not only are Playworks staff engaged with the kids in cooperative experiences, but the Junior Coaches Program has been created to give older students, 4th and 5th graders, the opportunity to design and lead recess activities.

Playworks could not exist without the team of AmeriCorps members which make up the majority of the staff. AmeriCorps, which is, essentially, a domestic Peace Corps, allows graduating college students the opportunity to give 1700 hours of service to an organization for one year in exchange for a living wage stipend and an education award to be used towards tuition or other academic expenses.

Thanks to the success of the Playworks recess programs and the hard work of the AmeriCorps volunteers and other staff, Jill Vialet and her team are now collaborating with the White House Office of Social Innovation, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services to increase the scale of impact on the climate of schools throughout the nation.

In the meantime, however, Playworks demonstrates every day that just one caring adult can make a systemic difference on a playground and in the classroom, one school at a time. And it"s the kids who benefit the most. Read more about how you can support their work, or bring Playworks to your school or city.

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About the Author

Rachel is a writer, thinker and world traveler who currently works under the Bay Bridge for a design consultancy called IDEO, helping spread human-centered design across the products and services we use and create as a society. Rachel is a 2010 graduate of University of Southern California where she earned her B.A. in International Relations and was the President and Founder of the TEDxTrojans Student Organization (a new TEDx formed around student innovation). She has also studied Arabic, and lived and worked in Egypt studying foreign policy and teaching English to African refugees living in Cairo. Her passion is making international development more efficient, effective, and most importantly, compassionate. Rachel climbs rocks so she can see into the distance, and always wears two different socks. Always.

  • It is so good to see this site coming to life!

    • admin

      Yes indeed.

  • Anonymous

    When I was a kid, I loved recess. I hope this program works. I’m going share this with my niece. The school her kids attend needs help in this area. Thanks (it)!

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  • What impact do teachers and principals see in their schools after using Playworks?

    98% credit Playworks with increasing student participation in physical activity

    91% state that students are more likely to cooperate with others

    87% report that bullying or name-calling during recess has decreased

    85% say Playworks improves the ability of their students to resolve conflicts

    95% report that students are engaged in physical activities for at least half of recess

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