Social Entrepreneur Jill Vialet on “Positive Chaos” and Fixing Recess

This article originally appeared on Harvard Magazine

Many students don’t go outside to play for recess, regardless of socioeconomic status. Whether that’s because of digital devices, parental fear of “stranger danger,” or objectively unsafe neighborhoods, they lack “the breadth of knowledge about how to play or start games,” she says—and especially how to keep them going after a disagreement.

Jill Vialet

Ashoka Fellow depuis aoû 2004

As of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2010 report “The State of Play,” perhaps 40 percent of school districts had cut or reduced recess within the prior decade—despite many educators’ assertion that it positively affects academic achievement and social and emotional development. Constrained budgets, and pressures to teach to standardized tests, are partly to blame, and recess is easy to curtail, especially if it’s a locus of conflicts, as happens at many schools.

Ashoka Fellow Jill Vialet founded Playworks, a nonprofit that partners with schools to promote exercise and social and emotional health through recess. She’s since scaled up the model, supported by more than $32 million in grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a 2006 Ashoka fellowship. With nearly 700 employees in 23 offices around the country, Playworks expects to reach 1.25 million children at 2,500 elementary schools this year—the majority from low-income families and neighborhoods.

Even though Vialet's sense is that “recess has been making a steady comeback,” in recent years, it typically lasts only 15 to 30 minutes; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a daily minimum of an hour of exercise. Shorter recesses can be ample, Vialet says—if they are strategically organized, with quick transitions, equipment and play zones in place, a repertoire of familiar games, and a capable “play coach.

Inclusion, conflict-resolution, taking turns, decision-making, self-regulation, self-awareness, collaboration, empathy. All the skills required for people to engage in civil society are things you learn in play.

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