Playworks: Student and School Outcomes

Prepared for
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

An estimated 40 percent of American schoolchildren no longer have recess. For children in low-income schools, tight budgets, safety concerns, and lack of playgrounds are all cited as reasons for the decline of recess. Yet even 15 minutes of play time during the day has been shown to have positive impacts on kids’ academic achievement.

The Playworks program places full-time coaches in low-income schools to provide opportunities for organized play during recess and throughout the school day. Playworks activities are designed to engage students in physical activity, foster social skills related to cooperation and conflict resolution, improve students’ ability to focus on class work, decrease behavioral problems, and improve school climate. Mathematica and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University conducted the first rigorous evaluation of the implementation and impact of the Playworks program. In summer 2010, 25 schools were randomly assigned to either the treatment group, which implemented Playworks during the 2010–2011 academic year, or the control group, which could not implement Playworks until the following year (2011–2012). Four additional schools were recruited for the study and randomly assigned to the treatment or control group prior to the 2011–2012 school year. Mathematica collected data in spring 2011 and spring 2012 from students, teachers, and school staff to document implementation and assess the impact of the program on (1) school climate, (2) conflict resolution and aggression, (3) learning and academic performance, (4) recess experience and physical activity, (5) youth development, and (6) student behavior. The data collection included obtaining administrative records data, conducting teacher and student surveys, using accelerometers to track physical activity, and conducting interviews, focus groups, and observations of recess. Key findings include:

  1. Less bullying. Teachers in Playworks schools reported significantly less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess compared to teachers in control schools.
  2. Increased feelings of safety at school. The average rating of students’ feelings of safety at school reported by Playworks teachers was higher than the average rating reported by teachers in control schools.
  3. More vigorous physical activity. Accelerometer data showed that children in Playworks schools spent significantly more time engaged in vigorous physical activity at recess than their peers in control schools.
  4. Ready to learn. Teachers in Playworks schools reported spending significantly less time to transition from recess to learning activities.