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In 5th grade and learning to be a leader

Through Playworks Pennsylvania, junior coaches help organize games at recess. One student who fills that role at Chester A. Arthur Elementary is Nafis Johnson.

Fifth grader Nafis Johnson stands with Julian Renwrick, the Playworks program coordinator at Chester A. Arthur Elementary School, at the start of recess Wednesday morning. Photo by Naomi Elegant

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Nafis Johnson, 10, stood in front of his classmates and shouted: “Don’t push!” His classmates recited it back. “Don’t shove!” Johnson shouted. “Don’t shove!” they shouted back.

Recess had just begun at Chester A. Arthur School, and Nafis, a 5th grader and a junior coach for Playworks Pennsylvania, was leading it.

The students continued through their set of agreements, ending with “respect” and “have fun.” Then they dispersed into groups to play basketball, dodgeball, and hula-hoop tag. Nafis, who wore a bright purple Playworks T-shirt, joined a dodgeball game.

Nafis is one of 12 students at Chester Arthur who are trained to be Playworks junior coaches and lead recess games. Playworks, a nonprofit focused on making school recess safe and inclusive, has been at Arthur for five years. It first came to Philadelphia schools in 2010.

Nafis is now in his second year as a junior coach. In October, he traveled to the Pennsylvania State Capitol to speak and play recess games with state and community representatives as part of Playworks’ “Real Players Don’t Bully” campaign. Nafis, who has been at Arthur since kindergarten, said he applied to become a junior coach because he remembered taking part in Playworks recess games when he was younger.

Nafis Johnson traveled to Harrisburg last month to talk to legislators about Playworks.

“When I was in 3rd grade, there were junior coaches around me and we had a Playworks coach, so I played almost every game, and they inspired me to become a junior coach,” he said.

Playworks games have slight variations on traditional ones to emphasize skill-building and to ensure kids aren’t left out of play — for example, in “crossover dodgeball,” instead of a child going to the waiting area when they get hit, they simply cross over to the other team.

“We try to play variants of games where kids are never ‘out,’ so they can always play,” said Playworks Pennsylvania executive director Ivy Olesh.

Nafis’ mother, Sharai Cunningham, said that being a junior coach has helped her son gain confidence and leadership skills. “He was able to broaden his horizons and come out of his shy shell that he was in. Now he’s more vocal and communicating a little better, like with public speaking.”

Playworks now operates in 46 schools in Pennsylvania and in 23 cities across 50 states.

“At Playworks Pennsylvania, our goal is to create a culture of play that enables kids to feel a real sense of belonging,” said Olesh. “The junior coaches empower kids to be leaders and serve as mentors for the younger students to model positive, inclusive behavior.”

When recess was over, the students began to file back into the school building. Nafis disappeared into the crowd of children, walking a little faster so he wouldn’t be late for math.

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