Playworks coach Crystal Massenburg gives a group of 4th graders at Merrick-Moore Elementary School in Durham reward points for being cooperative during their daily recess
Playworks coach Crystal Massenburg gives a group of 4th graders at Merrick-Moore Elementary School in Durham reward points for being cooperative during their daily recess. Photo by Holly West.

A program in Durham schools is helping kids have more fun on the playground at schools, get more exercise and reducing conflict to boot.

By Holly West

In some Durham schools, recess is becoming a little more productive.

The kids are learning about competition without confrontation on the playground while also getting a fun break from the classroom. They’re doing it with the help of a coach trained by Playworks, a national program that helps students make the most of recess by teaching good sportsmanship and conflict resolution.

Playworks operates in 22 cities in 19 states. Durham is the first site in North Carolina, with Wake County sites coming in the next school year. Image courtesy Playworks.

The program aims to get kids more physically active and reduce bullying during recess.

Playworks got its start at a school in Berkeley, Calif., in 1996. It has since expanded to 360 schools in 22 cities across the nation.

Laura Deeprose, program director for Playworks Durham, said schools are reaping the benefits of the program, which is about to wrap up its second year in North Carolina.

“There’s not really a chance for bullying because kids are out there just having fun and playing – they’re not grouping up and being in cliques,” Deeprose said.

She said each school has its own coach, who encourages students to get active during recess by providing structured activity. Coaches also work with teachers during game times in the classroom, provide before- or after-school programs and lead sports leagues.

Each school also has junior coaches – fourth- and  fifth-grade students who lead their peers in activities under the guidance of Playworks coaches.

“We’re really working with the older kids in the schools to help build leadership and get them ready for middle school,” Deeprose said.

“I see a lot more ownership from the kids now.”


Playworks operates in 15 Durham schools, including 14 public K-5 schools and one K-8 charter school.

Kia Eason, principal at Merrick-Moore Elementary School in Durham, said her school got involved in the program because so many kids were getting into trouble at recess.

“Every day, I could tell exactly what time it was by the number of referrals and the number of students that came to my office,” she said. “There wasn’t anything happening on the playground; there wasn’t any organization.”

Eason said the number of referrals during recess has dropped as a result of Playworks.

Deeprose said one of the most effective aspects of the program has been coaches teaching children how to handle arguments with their classmates.

“If there is a dispute whether the ball hit the line in foursquare, she’ll just say, ‘Hey let’s do a quick game of rock-paper-scissors,’” Deeprose said.

And the strategies students learn from Playworks aren’t confined to the playground. Teachers have seen students use Playworks conflict-resolution strategies like rock-paper-scissors to resolve disagreements in the classroom.

Crystal Massenburg, the Playworks coach at Merrick-Moore, said the program benefits teachers too.

“I can get all that energy out, get the kids cooled down,” Massenburg said. “I can give you your time back teaching.”

The coaches set up a circuit of eight to 10 activities each day, and a new activity is introduced each week.

Don Fowler, executive director for Playworks Durham, said coaches foster close relationships with their students, which inspires students to get involved.

“They are the most popular people, so they listen to them and they want to do stuff,” he said.

Fowler also said researchers studying the program have found schools using the Playworks model helps reduce bullying on playgrounds and helps kids concentrate better in the classroom after recess is over.

Moving more

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children should participate in one hour of physical activity each day to improve health and reduce the risk of disease as they grow older. That recommendation was recently re-affirmed by the U.S. Institute of Medicine. But since the initiation of No Child Left Behind, about half of schools have reduced or eliminated recess time for students.

Fowler said that only about 30 percent of kids in North Carolina get the recommended amount of exercise; Playworks strives to change that by ensuring kids get 30 minutes of that exercise at school each day during their recess.

Students can choose what they do during recess – but they have to do something.

“The coach is really there to encourage them to jump into a game,” Deeprose said. “But some days kids just have a bad day, and they just want to walk and talk.” So while they’re not involved in a game, at least they’re moving.

Fowler said parents have been overwhelmingly supportive of the program.

“We get really good reports from parents,” he said. “If you have a Playworks shirt on and are walking around Durham, somebody is going to stop you.”

For a school to be eligible for a Playworks program, at least 50 percent of its students must receive free or reduced lunch.

Fowler said schools that don’t meet this requirement may participate in a different program that trains teachers and administrators but doesn’t include an on-site coach.

Schools pay $25,000 to enroll in the program – roughly $49 dollars per student. This accounts for only 45 percent of the cost of the program. The rest of the funding comes from AmeriCorps, which provides many of the coaches, and other donors.

Durham Public Schools is the only system in North Carolina that currently participates in Playworks, but four Wake County schools will implement it next year. Fowler said he hopes to expand it to nearly 30 schools in the state in the next several years.

Participating schools will eventually transition from a direct program to a training program. Playworks coaches will no longer be at the school each day and teachers will be trained to facilitate productive playtimes.

Deeprose said the timeframe for this transition has varied from two to seven years in other programs around the country.

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...