Playworks New England has partnerships with 45 schools across Boston. At William E. Russell Elementary, a Playworks coach runs recess while supporting a recess team at that school to help them implement a great recess at the same time through the innovative TeamUp program. The Junior Coach Program helps build the same skills in youth so they can lead their peers on and off the recess yard. During Class Game Time a classroom teacher can help assess which skills their students need to work on, and their Playworks coach can help support that need through a game and a reflection.

Key Takeaways

  • Roles and routines are powerful tools to maintain a culture where social relationships can thrive.

  • Empower students and staff to own your program model and take what they learn into other spaces.

  • Play can bring out the best in every kid. Play encourages cooperation and age appropriate conflict resolution.

How do you encourage students to engage outside of their friend groups and form different relationships?

Playworks is all about creating an environment where safe and health play can happen. Systematically, at a Playworks program, we’re trying new things so that kids are able to take risks. Rather than having team captains, we may have a coach or adult count off, “Apple, orange, apple, orange,” so a student is randomly chosen to play with people outside their friend group. There are always multiple options for games at recess. One game called Shipwreck has students move around and listen for commands that tell them to quickly build groups of different sizes to act as a pirate crew together. Teachers and leaders can build in structural elements to games and play that break up typical groups and allow students the opportunity to meet new people without even knowing it. When a space feels safe, students can learn about themselves and see others from a new different perspective to understand them better.  Now you’re building this culture of inclusiveness where kids know that if they don’t want to play one game, they can choose something else. You might see a girl at recess take a risk by jumping into a basketball game of all boys because she feels safe to do so, knowing that students can choose any game and will be included.

How do you help students solve conflict among themselves?

From a young age at school kids are encouraged to go find an adult if they have a problem. At Playworks, we’re working to put in systems that give students the tools to feel confident resolving their own conflicts on the recess yard. You’ll see our staff and our adults modeling, “Hey, let’s just play a quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. We don’t know if the ball was in or out. We could argue and waste twenty minutes of valuable recess time on this beautiful day, or we could play Rock, Paper, Scissors, and move on to get back to playing quickly.” Rock, Paper, Scissors is a staple of Playworks recess. Beyond that, you might see two students having a further conversation, using I Statements. We always encourage students to voice, “I feel upset because…” so that kids are able to learn how to communicate with one another, which can be difficult. Then, we’re encouraging them to move on. “This was a small problem, we played Rock, Paper, Scissors, and we talked about it. Now we can move on.” This also empowers the adults we work with to let kids solve their own problems. For 21st century learning and their future success in life, they need to know how to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner.

How do you ensure all students are included?

Playworks is really about creating the inclusive environment first. What things can you change in the environment that will make it more welcoming, warmer, and safer? We describe it as a “high five culture.” You can picture a recess with a competitive game of Four Square, and when a student gets out, we give them a high five and say, “Good job. Nice try. Go ahead to the end of the line and your turn will be up in a minute.” Once the adults model this practice a few times, you see a few kids pick up on it. Then you see the whole group practicing it, and that’s when the culture of the game is totally transformed so that kids feel more included. We empower our Junior Coaches, the 4th and 5th grade student leaders we train, to have the social awareness to recognize who is being left out. Who is not in the game right now? What can I do as a friend or as a peer leader to help get them in the game?

How do staff build relationships with individual students?

Before we put our coaches in a school, we make sure they feel prepared. Do they know how to deal with challenging behaviors? Do they know how to deal with gender on the playground? Do they know how to lead and facilitate games so that all kids understand how to play because there’s many different learning styles? We provide a lot of training to school based staff as well as everyone we train through our capacity building model on how to do that work. 


The hallways, the cafeteria and the classroom are all areas where safe and healthy play manifests itself and social emotional learning is happening. Kids are learning what it means to be in a positive relationship when the coach takes the time to talk to them, make eye contact, give a high five, and listen. They stop to listen to each other, they use I Statements, and they respect one another because we’ve set the tone. The power of play is a really strong way to build a relationship with an individual student. Sometimes kids exhibit themselves the best when they’re playing. Our coach can develop an amazing relationship with a student by saying, “Look, I know you’re struggling with listening to the teacher in class right now, but I see you love running and you’re great during Running Club.” They know what every single kid likes to do and what makes them tick.