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Playworks Detroit

Playworks is a national in-school program being implemented in Detroit that places a full-time “coach” in elementary schools to teach positive, safe, and meaningful play. The focus is on recess, with an emphasis on physical activity and improving socialization skills; the program also teaches conflict resolution strategy and leadership development, and Playworks coaches lead classroom games that promote team-building, inclusion, and respect.
Michigan Nightlight: What really differentiates this program?
Playworks Detroit Executive Director Jeannine Gant: I don’t know of any other organizations doing what we do: placing a full-time adult into a school specifically for the purpose of play. There are no other programs I know of doing school-wide conflict resolution strategy. We’re also a “turn-key” program that can be implemented anywhere, in any school, with empirical research showing proven impact indicators. For example, in our Detroit schools, teachers gained an average of 26 hours of academic time because they were spending less time resolving conflicts.
What are the keys to success for your program?
One of the key components is involving parents, teachers and administrators.  Having a good, proven model is also
I don't know of any other organizations doing what we do: placing a full-time adult into a school specifically for the purpose of play.
important. As we try to become more established in Detroit, we need to connect with people who “get it”; who remember the importance of recess and want to engage in that conversation, like the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the Detroit Lions. This kind of support also lends legitimacy to our fledgling organization. As for the program’s results, a key to our success is having a fantastic staff of playful professionals who embody what we talk about and teach. We have a 3:00 p.m. recess in my office every day.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
The biggest challenge we’re facing right now is being the new kid on the block. We sometimes encounter initial resistance from teachers before they understand and appreciate the benefits of what we’re implementing. As far as community and foundation support, we don’t yet have a “brand” that people recognize, and that’s a challenge. We will overcome that by building key relationships with organizations like the Detroit Lions, and utilizing those platforms to get our message out. Events like the Recess Day we held with Mayor Bing in Campus Martius and the upcoming Get in the Game Luncheon with the Lions will help us build important, visible alliances.
...a key to our success is having a fantastic staff of playful professionals who embody what we talk about and teach. We have a 3:00 p.m. recess in my office every day.
How do you innovate programming? Where do the ideas come from? How do you know if they are going to work?

The programming all comes from the national organization, which was founded in Oakland, California, in 1996. Because the program has been in existence for many years, we have the benefit of all those years of research and analysis to see what has proven to be impactful, so we leave the components of the program largely unchanged. There are a few tweaks here and there. For example, in Oakland they can go outdoors for recess year-round; in Michigan, we have to improvise in the winter, and play in auditoriums, hallways, and empty classrooms. But the program is really cross-cultural and cross socio-economic. It works just as well in Holmes elementary, which is 98 percent African-American, as it does in Bennett in Southwest Detroit, which is 90 percent Latino.
What are people in your program most inspired by?  
We did a survey recently of our staff and asked them, “What motivates you?” It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but it’s seeing the excitement and smiles on kids’ faces; giving them that high five. When they come to school, they immediately feel welcome. The Playworks coaches know all the kids’ names, and the kids treat them like rock stars. It makes the staff feel that although the problems are big, they’re doing their part to the best of their ability.
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  • Playworks Detroit
    Playworks’ mission is to improve the health and well-being of children by increasing opportunities for physical activity and safe, meaningful play.


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