Play Works for All Kids, Emphasis on “All”

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[Image description: Two kids in purple Playworks Junior Coach t-shirts high-five on a playground blacktop. One of them holds a rubber ball between his arm and hip.]

What memories do you have of recess? Playing your favorite game? Waiting in line for your turn to kick the ball? Swinging across the monkey bars? Or maybe something less fun. Maybe bullying, or getting picked last for a team. Recess is an important part of the school day. Kids benefit from physical activity, as well as the social skills they learn while playing with their friends. Furthermore, as Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney recently wrote: “Studies show that regular physical activity at school benefits children’s academic performance. Kids who are active have higher test scores and grades.” Yet, recess can also be a challenging time for many children. Many disciplinary incidents take place during recess. Additionally, some children, due to their unique physical, social or emotional needs, aren’t able to participate in recess the same way as their peers. That’s why the Northwest Health Foundation is partnering with Playworks Pacific Northwest — to ensure all kids can access the advantages recess has to offer.

Playworks partners with schools to make recess an essential part of the school day and ensure that all kids benefit from fun, safe and inclusive play. Through Playworks, kids develop positive social skills, become leaders, and return to class from recess ready to learn. Schools that partner with — or are “powered by” — Playworks have demonstrated a decrease in disciplinary referrals and an increase in students’ ability to refocus in the classroom after recess. Excited by these results, in 2014 Northwest Health Foundation committed to a multi-year investment in Playworks Pacific Northwest to help spread their methods to more schools in Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Playworks believes “PLAYWORKS for every kid.” In fact, this sentence is front and center on their website. Given Northwest Health Foundation’s recent renewed focus on disability as an equity priority, this statement led us to ask ourselves: How does Playworks work to make this true for every kid? Do students with disabilities have similar or different experiences? How can we work with schools, students and families toward ensuring play works for all kids, including kids with disabilities? While schools are required to collect data on many things, there is little data about how much recess time kids receive, and whether all kids can take part in recess. So, we took this question directly to Playworks partner schools.

As Playworks Pacific Northwest Executive Director Jonathan Blasher told us, “We’re asking ourselves more often the questions of ‘what don’t we know, who is not being represented, and what might limit anyone’s participation in any of our efforts?’ ” Seeking answers to these questions helped us uncover a lot. We learned that some schools experience different challenges regarding recess, such as the lack of a dedicated physical space, or poor weather conditions, or even play spaces that are not accessible by those with mobility needs. We also learned that when it comes to students in Special Education, each school takes a different approach. Some schools include their Special Education students in the regular recess, others provide a separate space, and some schools even provide modified activities for students with mobility needs.

We were also curious about how kids with and without disabilities play together. Ensuring all kids have access to play is one thing. Ensuring all kids learn how to play together is another. The latter will go further to create an environment that is safe, inclusive and fun for all. Playworks coaches are trained to modify games to make them enjoyable by everyone. They are also learning how to identify and acknowledge children who might have a difficult time socializing at recess, including engaging kids themselves to think of ways to modify games so that their peers can participate. In one elementary school in Portland, Oregon for example, the resident Playworks coach and students modified some of their games (such as four-square and tag) so that one of their friends, who uses a powered wheelchair, could play with them. Some schools are also considering the importance of play for students’ development, even including them in their Individualized Education Plans (IEP). According to the Principal at Kelly Elementary School, Amy Whitney, “When we meet as a team (school, family, student, advocates) our discussion is often narrowed in on how the student’s disability impacts them in the traditional academic setting. As a Playworks partner school, we value play as a learning opportunity and need to include a students’ access to play in our IEP and 504 conversations.”

These lessons and examples from Playworks Pacific Northwest schools are now being considered in other Playworks regions. According to Jonathan, “These learnings are being shared with our national headquarters, and we’ve invited other Playworks regions to join in the dialogue and practice. At the national level, we also connected with Kids Included Together (KIT) and have implemented some of their best practices based on the trainings they provided for all our program managers across the country.”

It’s exciting to see how this partnership between Playworks Pacific Northwest and Northwest Health Foundation has challenged both our organizations to dig deeper, ask questions, and make space for conversation around inclusion. Jonathan said it best: “Play is a universal language and is considered by the United Nations as a human right for children. Unfortunately, access to play is not always universal and takes thoughtfulness and effort. We’re proud to be part of a community and movement dedicated to inclusive activities for all ability, especially potentially vulnerable or marginalized populations. Play On!”