Metta Fund

From Its Start in the Bay Area, a Movement for Healthy and Safe Play Goes National

Playworks Education Energized

From its founding in Oakland in 1996, to piloting a new model of service in San Francisco in 2013, Playworks’ innovation hub is Northern California

Healthy play is an important part of children’s social and emotional development, and helps establish the habits for an active life. Yet, when schools are dealing with budget cuts, behavioral problems, or concerns about safety, recess and P.E. are sometimes restricted.

“When schools are facing tough choices, what’s called ‘play’ seems like an option to cut,” said Robert Sindelar, regional executive offer of Playworks, noting that some schools have banned running or tag. “So we start by communicating the value of play.”

Kids who miss out on traditional recess games get less physical activity and experience in resolving conflict. Recess provides a critical opportunity for social and emotional learning, which helps students succeed in the classroom and in life. To help all kids learn how to make play fun, inclusive, and safe enough to avoid trips to the principal’s office, Jill Vialet founded Playworks at a Berkeley elementary school in 1996.

Play itself is so critical for children’s healthy development that it has been recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics as an essential part of children’s social, emotional, and physical well-being.”
—Journal of School Health 2015 study

Since then, Playworks has gone national. In 2016, it marked its 20th anniversary, serving more than 1,300 schools and reaching more than 700,000 students in 23 cities across the country. The organization hopes to reach 1.1 million students at 2,200 schools across the US during the 2017-2018 school year.

Until recently, Playworks had two models for serving schools and communities: Playworks Coach, which provides a full-time recess coach to a school throughout the day and after school, and Playworks Pro, which provides training and professional development to school staff and after-school care providers to create a great recess environment.

In 2013 to 2014, with support from Metta Fund, Playworks piloted a new model that has since been expanded nationally.

Piloting Playworks TeamUp in San Francisco

Playworks has had a close partnership with San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) for many years. Historically, Playworks has partnered with SFUSD on a school-by-school basis, placing Playworks Coaches at each participating site.

“A few years ago, we started having conversations with SFUSD around district-wide contracting,” said Michelle Collier, development director for Playworks Northern California. “We were looking for something we could do for schools that fell between needing a full-time Playworks Coach and the Playworks Pro training model.”

In 2013, the organization began piloting Playworks TeamUp, which provided a single site coordinator to develop an ongoing recess program for four partner schools. The site coordinator spends one week every month at each school.

In Northern California, 64 schools are now participating in Playworks TeamUp, and the organization’s goal is to serve 358 schools nationwide with the program in 2018.

Metta made its first grant to Playworks in 2008. Part of the reason we make capacity building grants is to give nonprofits the resources to design and develop new programs.

“Metta Fund was instrumental in the creation of our TeamUp model of service,” said Collier. “We piloted it here in San Francisco, and our partnership with Metta Fund gave us the resources to launch a new program.”

Emphasizing Measurement and Partnerships

As it develops and expands new programs, Playworks rigorously measures their effectiveness. They conduct surveys of school programs every year. They’ve partnered with Stanford University to conduct a randomized control trial that was published in the American Journal of School Health.

“We have to be able to explain our impact, and we stand by the results,” said Sindelar. “At the same time, we know that if we want to achieve long-term, lasting impact, it’s not sustainable to have one staff person at every school.”

In addition to its traditional partnership with SFUSD, Playworks also partners with fellow nonprofit organizations such as Girls on the Run, the Bay Area Disc Association, Shape Up San Francisco, Sunday Streets, the YMCA, and the Boys and Girls Club. Playworks also hosts events where employees of San Francisco-based companies, such as Salesforce and Wells Fargo, can work on a school beautification project and join in recess games to become advocates for the importance of play.

Recently, Playworks hosted a training session with several of Metta Fund’s summer camp grantees and other youth organizations, on how to infuse safe, inclusive play into their activities.

“That opportunity to train other organizations, like Metta Fund’s grantees, is a huge part of our aim,” said Sindelar, “to spread the power of play to other organizations. Support from Metta Fund gives us the leverage to create more partnerships and allows us to test new methods. We consider Metta Fund to be one of our anchor partners.”