Occasionally, the solutions to some of education’s most bedeviling problems are startlingly simple.
Here is one of them, on a playground at the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester on a recent, frigid afternoon. It’s your typical no-frills public school playground, only colder: Every gust goes through you like an icy shiv.
The kids don’t seem to notice, though. Third- and fourth-graders from five classrooms squeal and laugh, their breath visible. Some stand in two orderly lines beneath a hoop, playing a super-fast game of knockout. Another group plays foursquare. Another cluster kicks soccer balls around. A group jump rope and hula hoop their hearts out. Overseeing them all is Dawn Gadow, a 24-year-old the kids call Coach Dawn. She steers kids toward this game or that, joining in, comforting someone after a mishap.
Recess at the Mather didn’t look like this two years ago. Instead, you’d see groups of girls sitting in circles, chatting; boys sitting around playing video games; play fighting, which often descended into real fighting. Basketball, soccer, and tag competing for whatever space remained, inevitably leading to injuries. You’d see trash talking, bullying, exclusion.
“Let a hundred kids out onto the basketball court and see what happens,” says Mather principal Emily Cox. “Nothing good.”
Afterward, the “Lord of the Flies” routine migrated into the classroom. Settling the kids to learn took another 20 minutes. Every day. In a system with one of the shortest school days in the state, this was a big problem.
“Before, only the lunch ladies were here,” says Teon, a slight 11-year-old. “There were a lot of fights. It was boring.”
So along comes a California-based outfit called Playworks. Its simple solution to the woes of break time: Put a coach on the playground to organize recess games, so that kids have no choice but to be active. Make the games the kind that encourage cooperation and build confidence. Deputize kids like Teon to be mini-coaches. Solve disputes with rock-paper-scissors. Set clear expectations, and predictable routines — including a game of match-me Gadow leads at the end of recess, as her charges are lined up, ready to go back to class.
As anyone with a kid or a dog knows, running them till they’re spent is the way to happiness. But the kids at the Mather get more than just fitness and better concentration. They’re more confident — especially the leaders. There are fewer conflicts. There is less bullying. Fewer kids are sent inside for infractions and injuries. They end their time on the playground focused and ready to learn.
Those results are reflected in the hundreds of schools Playworks serves across the country.
No doubt there will be some who see this program as yet more creeping nannyism: Kids have been sorting out their own playground problems for years. Free play is an indispensable part of childhood. Why add to kids’ overscheduled lives by regimenting them into organized games at recess?
All fair enough. But for a lot of the kids Playworks serves, playtime, outside their short school day, is all too free. They don’t have the luxury of overscheduled lives.
Playworks has coaches in 32 schools in Boston and Revere right now, serving 15,000 kids. In addition to their recess duties, coaches like Gadow lead in-class games and coach sports teams, but they don’t come cheap: $57,000 per year pays for Gadow, training, and administrative costs. With major help from The Boston Foundation and other donors, Playworks picks up 54 percent of the cost. Principals like Cox must scrounge up the rest.
There are cheaper options: Playworks trains school staff to do what Gadow does at recess. And the School Department is aiming to implement the program’s lessons across the entire system. But the most dramatic results come in schools that have full-time Playworks coaches.
Here is something simple that works. We ought to find a way to bring it to every kid who needs it.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org