This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The students knew they had just 15 minutes outside.
Once the recess coach yelled, “On your mark, get set, play,” the 2nd graders scattered in excitement across the bare blacktop at Chester Arthur Elementary in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood to make the most of every minute.
Colin Templeton, one of the more spontaneous students on the playground, let his energy guide him: He ran around the grounds with an orange cone to his lips, mouthing inaudible words to an imaginary audience. Minutes later, he bounced a pink ball across the blacktop, and just before the whistle blew, he lobbed a shuttlecock into the breeze with one hand and lashed a yellow braided rope against the pavement with the other.
Colin and his classmates were engaged in organized play, a situation uncommon to many schools in Philadelphia, let alone scheduled recess time or an adequate playground.
The School District of Philadelphia doesn’t track which schools provide recess – it is recommended but not mandated as part of the elementary school schedule – and could not provide any information about the state of schoolyards.
This could be shortsighted, experts say.
“We know that without play, children become ill,” said Anna Beresin, a professor at the University of the Arts, who has spent decades studying how and why kids play.
She added, “Children need recess playtime to move their bodies, strengthen their social ties, and invent their cultural world. Play is particularly important at school as it allows children to synthesize what they learn in their own way.”
Now, in Philadelphia, several outside organizations are working to help elementary schools improve student playtime. The Community Design Collaborative, which provides pro bono preliminary design services to nonprofit organizations, has coordinated almost 20 preliminary designs for schoolyards.
And Playworks, a national organization recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama, in conjunction with her national Let’s Move campaign, provides recess coaches for some schools, although the service costs money at a time when schools are strapped for so many other needs.
But paying attention to student play can pay other dividends.
According to a 2013 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatricians, having recess helps students process the information they learn in the classroom. Children develop their cognitive understanding through interactive, manipulative experiences, the report said.
And children process information best when a period of interruption follows a period of concentrated instruction. Unstructured social environments make kids more attentive and productive in the classroom, the academy reported.
In 2010, when Beresin and her students surveyed Philadelphia schoolyards, they found 50 percent of the yards to be inadequate, with broken pavement, ruined equipment, or cars parked where there used to be play space.
This was true for Greenfield School in Center City before its playground underwent a redesign process that began in 2009. “We had a dumpster enclosure that oozed out gross liquid onto the schoolyard,” said principal Daniel Lazar. There were also more than 20 cars parked on the asphalt each day, with the cars moving in and out as students played on the available space.
“A beautiful playground is a monument to children’s freedom,” said Beresin. “Great playground design is most useful for validating play itself, particularly in the eyes of the grownups.”
At Greenfield School, the Community Design Collaborative worked with a committee of parents, teachers, and other community members to create a comprehensive plan and provide technical support for the transformation.
Today, after seven years, five construction phases, and nearly $1 million in combined investments from donors like the Philadelphia Water Department, Greenfield’s playground boasts amenities from an agricultural zone with fruit-bearing trees to a rain garden that absorbs 97 percent of the rainwater that falls on its grounds.
“There’s more for our kids to do in our yard now,” said Lazar, reflecting on the changes over the last decade.
“At recess, they learn how to solve their own conflicts, and in the classroom, teachers deal with less management issues and students focus more because they’ve had time to work off built-up energy.”
Open to the community, Greenfield’s playground has become a stimulating environment for children’s 22 minutes of unstructured daily play, an outdoor classroom, and a place of brief repose for neighborhood passersby.
Most recently, the Community Design Collaborative hosted a play space design competition that brought 40 design entries from around the world for three sites – a playground, a library, and a community recreation center in Philadelphia.
“We tend to narrowly think about how one educates,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University. “We think it’s about a smart person dispensing knowledge to empty heads, but this doesn’t happen in the real world. Kids need to be explorers and actively engaged. We need to design experiences for kids to give them ways to create, run around, and discover."
Playworks works through the national service program AmeriCorps. It has placed recess coaches in 20 schools, including Greenfield and Arthur.
At Arthur, the blacktop surrounding 2nd grader Colin and his classmates was spotted with boxes of recreational materials.
“I like the blank easel of the playground,” said Rob Crowthers, the Playworks recess coach. “I come in with the kids, and we create spaces and don’t have to feel constricted.”
And as an advocate pushing for even more than the 15 minutes of recess time at his site, Crowthers said, “Play time is valuable for imagination and creation. The kids form a community of their own outside and learn lessons that help them do better in the classroom.”
Arthur and Greenfield have raised funds to pay for Playworks’ $25,500 per year price tag, but many schools in the District don’t have the means to apply for grants or solicit donations.
Arthur Elementary plans to reconstruct its playground beginning this summer to create an environment more conducive to play and outdoor learning. As late as December 2015, Crowthers said, Arthur’s playground also had trash dumpsters on it.
Mayor Kenney, in his first budget address, drew a connection between education and the need to revitalize parks, recreation areas, libraries, and playgrounds. Investments in education and public spaces can help turn Philadelphia into a world-class city, he said, and can also give Philadelphians what they deserve.
Brooke Winsor, a 2nd grader frolicking on the playground near her classmate Colin, said “I like that we can have fun and talk to our friends. I learn to not push or hit anybody.”
When asked how she would respond if she found out that Coach Rob or recess would be taken away, she said, “That’s not fair. What did we do? We didn’t do anything to have that taken from us.”
Beresin said, “[A great play space] means little if children lose access to that space as they are being punished. Play for children is like dreaming, a necessity for health.”