Goldmark: Teaching conflict resolution, one playground at a time

Twenty-seven angel wood cutouts are set up on Twenty-seven angel wood cutouts are set up on a hillside in memory to the victims of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. (Dec. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Peter Goldmark Peter Goldmark, former publisher of the International Herald

Peter Goldmark writes a weekly column for Newsday. He is former budget director of New York State and ...

After the heartache we all felt after the school shooting last month, it's important to remember that good things can happen in schools, too. This is the story of one of them.

Many school districts around the country hit with budget pressures have cut their recess and supervised play programs. Usually these are districts that serve disadvantaged or broken families. A program called Playworks challenges those schools to fill the vacuum.

Playworks is the brainchild of Jill Vialet, a former rugby player who started it over a decade ago when she saw what was happening to children who didn't have well-designed play periods.

Playworks says to a school with no recess or playground program: You come up with $25,000, and we'll match it, train a play supervisor-coach for you, and run a supervised playground program for grades K-6 -- until you're ready to take it over yourself and incorporate it into the regular school program.

Some schools, once approached, see the value and sign up right away; others can take several years. But once they get it, almost all of them stick with it. About 360 schools in 22 cities, including some in Brooklyn, have taken up this challenge so far. And the results are impressive.

It's rare for a program like Playworks to undergo a rigorous evaluation. But the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation of New Jersey paid to have Mathematica, a respected social-science research organization, conduct a professional evaluation of Playworks. Mathematica looked at how kids in the programs did compared with those with unsupervised recess periods. Using such control groups removes some of the subjectivity in assessing what the program is really accomplishing.

The study found improvement in student behavior in overall school climate, conflict resolution and aggression, and learning and academic performance in schools with Playworks vs. schools that had no Playworks program.

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There was less bullying and less exclusion or sidelining of children by other children. There was more successful group interaction by young children, and classroom teachers reported more engagement in schoolroom academics after recess, rather than the carry-over pushing and yelling that used to mark the start of class after recess.

One of the most important things the program does is equip kids to deal with anger and aggression, and give them alternatives to bullying or being bullied. And one of the innovative ways it does this will ring a bell with all of us who grew up playing rock-paper-scissors.

Playworks introduces conflict resolution skills to students as young as 5 using one of the most ubiquitous and simple games in existence. Ro-sham-bo, or rock-paper-scissors (depending on where you are from), is an ancient game of chance: two players throw out one of three symbols using their hands. As each player shows his or her symbol, the result is either a tie (if both players throw the same symbol) or one person wins. You know: Rock crushes scissors, scissors cuts paper, and paper smothers rock. In the event of a tie, the game continues until one person wins.

The coaches add a healthy dose of positive reinforcement to a child for showing empathy to his or her fellow players. Once one child has lost, the winner is expected to offer a high five and say "good job" or "nice try" to the loser. By modeling and repeating this behavior, the recess coaches build an expectation of kindness and respect -- and help kids understand that both winning and losing are just one part of social interaction, and losing is something they need not fear.

With so much to worry about in this country, it's nice to remember there are a lot of good things going on, too. And some of them are even happening on school playgrounds.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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