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Playworks Utah is putting 'fun' and 'fitness' back into recess

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WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Recess has taken a beating in recent years. Mediating petty playground fights and bullying frustrates administrators and teachers. Now, Playworks Utah is putting "fun" and "fitness" back into recess at some local schools.

After a half hour of exercise and games, first-graders at West Valley City's Academy Park Elementary channel their inner Mulan by singing and jumping to "Let's Get Down to Business." It's how their Playworks Utah coach gets them ready to go back to the classroom and get down to learning.

The business of recess is a lot less chaotic at Academy Park these days. "Just seeing the change that kids have when play becomes something that builds their social and emotional skills, gives them self-esteem, and really an outlet for positive energy," says Chris Conard, executive director of Playworks Utah.

Academy Park is one of several dozen Utah elementaries where the Playworks Utah program is trying to put the "fun" back in recess. Blake Heldt-Werle, the Playworks Utah coach at the school, says, "One of the main skills we work on is conflict resolution."

"Rochambeau, Rochambeau, Rochambeau," is a chant heard often on the playground here. "The idea of Rochambeau is that you play rock, paper, scissors, and you solve it there because these kids love playing games, of course," says coach Heldt-Werle.

From four square to soccer to basketball and tether ball, Heldt-Werle teaches students how to play dozens of games and how to play them by the rules.

"My job is to make sure kids are safe and they're playing safe and they're doing what they're supposed to," says Saurotuma Ralphs, a junior Playworks Utah coach at Academy Park.

Fifth- and sixth-grade junior Playworks coaches like Ralphs are both peers and mentors on the playground. They play dozens of games with kids on the playground and help to quiet and calm them as they return to class.

"The most significant impacts that I get from educators is recovered teaching time," says Conard.

Sixth-grade teacher Danielle Hanson agrees, saying, "The transition coming in specifically from recess is a lot shorter."

Hanson has also noticed that it takes students less time to focus back on their studies. "When the kids can go outside and have a successful time at recess, they are definitely more willing to learn," says Hanson.

Heldt-Werle has observed another positive result of the Playworks Utah program. "There's a lot less conflict, a lot less students in the office and more time for teachers to do the teaching that's most important."

Extra learning time is an important part of the program's reputation for decreasing school bullying while increasing safety and physical activity.

"It's helped to build a community among the students, especially when they're playing outside," Hanson says.

The Playworks community got a boost from a 2013 study by Stanford University. It showed Playworks schools reported 43 percent less bullying while students felt safer and more active on the playground.

Playworks Utah serves low-income elementaries across the state. The program has grown exponentially since Conard debuted it in five schools in 2011. This year, Playworks is in 41 elementary schools across Salt Lake County and into Davis County, and that's 22,000 kids served every school day.

"When they're engaged with their class and see their teacher participating and everyone's cheering for them and encouraging them, it makes them feel more welcome and builds that sense of community," says Heldt-Werle.

Playworks' five-year plan for growth calls for the program or a similar one run by another nonprofit to be in 50 percent of all the state's elementary schools by 2020. Email:

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