The Other 60 Percent

Playgrounds and the science of recess

AURORA – With 770 students squeezed into a school building designed to accommodate just 425, classroom space at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School is at a premium.

Elkhart Elementary's new Peaceful Playground has well-marked areas for structured play.

But Elkhart principal Katie Hartenbach has started viewing the school’s newly refurbished playground as the most valuable classroom space of all.

The reason: “Recess really allows students to focus for the rest of the day,” said Hartenbach. “It’s very important. They need to get out, get that fresh air, get their wiggles out.”

Beyond offering a place where youngsters can burn off youthful energy, the playground is more and more becoming an extension of physical education class at Elkhart.

Like schools across Colorado concerned about meeting the new state mandates for physical activity time for students, Elkhart is leveraging recess into something more than just a break from academic studies.

Since receiving a $4,800 grant from Lowe’s to install a Peaceful Playground last month, the school has aligned its P.E. curriculum to teach students games and skills they can readily put into practice on the playground during recess.

And thanks to a partnership with nearby Anthem College, the school has tapped college work/study students to act as playground coaches, helping to engage the youngsters in supervised active play.

“Our school is so huge,” Hartenbach said. “Having structure to the games and having defined areas on the playground really helps maintain control. Everyone on recess duty understands what the expectations are. We’ve developed much better playground supervision, and most students are now engaged in active games during recess.”

Local schools kicking up recess a notch

Across the metro area, more and more schools are taking recess up a notch, investing in playground upgrades, bringing in recess coaches, and moving recess to before lunch – so children don’t sacrifice nutritionally necessary lunch time in order to get a few more minutes of play time.

For example, Playworks, a California-based national non-profit organization that sends trained full-time recess coordinators into low-income urban schools, has established programs in 12 metro-area schools and expects to expand into four more by January.

Learning Landscapes, a program of the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning, will dedicate 11 new playgrounds at DPS schools this fall, raising to 92 the number of playgrounds Learning Landscapes has transformed into colorful, well-designed, kid-friendly havens.

State bucks national trend

While an estimated 40 percent of elementary schools nationwide have eliminated recess, Colorado seems to be moving the opposite direction, embracing recess.

Denver's Cory Elementary is one of the latest to get a Learning Landscape playground.

Terra A. Gillett, of Thornton, serves as “recess advocate” for Colorado for USA IPA, the American affiliate of the International Play Association. The organization, which lobbies across the country for children’s right to play, has appointed such advocates in nearly every state to serve as watchdogs and to help guide parents to protect school recess if it is threatened.

Gillett, a Homeland Security specialist, acknowledges that while the loss of recess is a huge issue in some other states, that’s not the case in Colorado.

“We haven’t had a serious problem with this,” she said. “There was one school in Colorado Springs that was thinking of eliminating recess, but they dropped that idea. Then there was a little bit of an issue in Greeley, but that got remedied.

“I just haven’t heard of anything else going on in Colorado. I don’t know why, but it seems like the East Coast is where recess has been hit really bad.”

Quality of recess still varies widely

Andrea Woolley, executive director of Playworks Denver, said that while most elementary schools in Colorado do retain some form of recess, the quality and quantity of that recess can vary dramatically.

“Recess can be anything from 10 minutes to 40 minutes a day,” she said. “And the outcomes are different.”

Woolley said all the schools who brought in Playworks programs last year experienced a drop in disciplinary complaints, as well as a reduction in injuries sustained on the playground.

“Kids at Playworks schools get an average of 30 minutes of physical activity, but they’re also engaged in games more often, and they’re learning new social skills,” Woolley said.

“They’re learning leadership and empathy. And they’re learning new skills, like how to hit a baseball or how to kick a soccer ball. We make physical activity and games enticing, so instead of gossiping under a tree, the kids are getting engaged.”

Teachers at schools with Playworks programs report getting back roughly 24 hours of extra instruction time each year, she said, because the children come back more focused and ready to learn after they’ve had structured, active recess time.

Various strategies to fund the cost

Playworks can be pricey – $52,000 for a full-time recess coach, half of which the school must fund, while Playworks picks up the other half.

Aurora's Elkhart Elementary held a painting party Sept. 17 to transform their playground.

“For each school, funding Playworks is a different journey,” Woolley said. “Some have it right in their budget and that’s the end of the conversation. Others pull some of it from other line items and have fund-raisers to cover the rest. At another school, the PTO raised the money. Each school does it differently.”

Peaceful Playgrounds is a less costly, more do-it-yourself alternative.

Rather than investing in actual playground structures and equipment, Peaceful Playgrounds provides blueprints and stencils for creating well-defined play areas such as four-square, hopscotch, Twister and other longstanding recess favorites. And rather than sending in outside recess coaches, Peaceful Playgrounds offers online training and webinars to teach school staff how to play the games and how to teach them to the children.

Elkhart is currently the only school in Aurora to have a fully functional Peaceful Playground, but four others – at Paris, Park Lane, Wheeling and Fulton elementaries – are soon to open. In addition, three outdoor and three indoor Peaceful Playgrounds will be raffled off to other schools soon, APS officials say.

“The kids are absolutely loving it,” said Hartenbach. “It’s very colorful. The first day, you’d have thought we had a brand new playground. We painted lanes for running and we had relay races. It really is spectacular.”

In addition, Elkhart got a supply of jump ropes, tether balls, beanbags, hula hoops, flying discs and other such playground necessities to put the newly stenciled game areas to proper use.

“It’s making our playground a much safer place,” Hartenbach said. “I love how it creates a systematic way to engage the kids in play. Most of all, it’s given me peace of mind, knowing our kids are safe. Because having so many kids out there, that’s our biggest worry as a school. I feel we have a good system for that now.”

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.