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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Program Coordinator or Coach for Playworks leads a recess activity at Lincoln Elementary in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 14, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — The stars, bullies, sidekicks and loners joined other playground personalities in coming together during recess at Lincoln Elementary School.

They played a new version of kickball — everyone took a turn at kicking and no one threw the ball at anyone else's head. Instead of shooting basketballs separately, they played knock-out together and gave each other high-fives when someone got out. They also played a cleaner version of dodgeball: When a ball was thrown too hard at an opponent, the offender did 20 jumping jacks.

And to settle a dispute, they played rock, paper, scissors and went on with playground fun.

The playground has reformed.

Across the nation, principals are looking for ways to organize or structure recess. Some have shortened the amount of time for recess or eliminated it altogether because of discipline issues or the time it takes to get back on topic when students come in bickering after recess. Other schools — like ones in Arizona — have cut back on recess time to focus on academics. Some schools in Atlanta are being built without playgrounds.

However, eight of 10 principals report recess has a positive impact on academic achievement, according to a study conducted by the Robert Johnson Foundation. And it allows kids to get needed exercise and fresh air.

Still, a majority of discipline-related problems occur outside the classroom — and during recess.

The solution for some schools: more organized and sometimes structured recess.

For the past week, Lincoln Elementary joined other elementary schools in three valley districts — two in Salt Lake City, five in Granite and one in Jordan — in an experiment with Playworks, a nonprofit organization that introduces a more organized, respectful and active recess time to lower-income, urban schools across the country.

While the program does not tell students what to play, it does limit the amount of available equipment to encourage students to play together and designates certain playground areas for different activities.

Each playground has a Playworks "coach" who chooses older students as junior coaches to help organize games and foster full participation and fair play. Playworks is already in 15 cities around the country including one in Colorado, four in California and one in Oregon. But it is planning on expanding to 12 more cities in the next couple years, and Salt Lake may be next.

"It's definitely changed," said Playworks' Abby Rotwein, whom the kids called Coach Abby. "It didn't feel very positive before. There were a lot of arguments over equipment and students being left out and no collaboration."

Lincoln principal Christine Pittam said discipline problems decreased by half after the first three days.

"Every kid is doing some kind of activity," Pittam said. "These kids are out here moving and smiling instead of wandering around or playing unsafe games."

And the students seem to love it, too.

David Leon, 10, said students don't get hurt as much, especially in rougher games like basketball and dodgeball.

"It's good she came," David said of Coach Abby. "A lot of people play other sports now."

Violet Uwizeyimana, a fifth-grader who used to just play tether ball, has been playing kickball, dodgeball and even basketball. She said it's because she knows how to play the games and feels included.

Even the students who before stayed inside during recess or played by themselves love the Playworks model, said Lara Dean, who teaches English as a second language at the school.

"I've never seen a program be this impactful in just a week," Dean said, adding she goes straight to work after recess instead of having students argue well into class time about what happened during recess. "This is the best thing I've seen in 20 years."

Pittam said the only problem is the program's cost — $23,500, which is the school's half-share of paying a Playworks employee, who not only helps with recesses but also helps teachers incorporate similar practices in classroom games and activities. The principal is hoping to raise the money through grants and business partners.

Some schools have introduced more structure by themselves. Several in the Park City and Granite districts offer students rewards for running or walking during recess.

Escalante Elementary replaced lunch recess a few years ago with a structured play time where the P.E. teachers direct student activities. Principal Richard Aslett said students have been running during the structured recess time the past month, competing with another school to see how many miles each school can accumulate. Escalante also provides a free-form recess for 15 minutes during the day, but the playground time still has some structure to it, Aslett said.

Park City also encourages its students to try out the activities they learn in P.E. during recess, said Jennifer Hunt, who has a second-grader at Parley's Park Elementary.

While structure is good for students to have, unstructured time is also important for children's well-being. It allows them to be creative and make up their own games, said Jenet Jacob Erickson, a former BYU assistant professor who has done family science research.

"There are some advantages to children not having structured, directed time to create a balance with the structured time at school," Erickson said. "It's also important to allow them to work things out on their own without adults and learn how to cope with people who are different than them by themselves."

Hunt said she loves her son coming home and talking of games he and friends make up during recess. She also likes to hear he ran a mile during lunch for the Gold Mile Club.

Another trend around the country is having recess before lunch instead of after — some local school districts have followed suit. Salt Lake put that into its policy in 2008, while some Canyons schools have joined schools in Colorado and Ohio in the practice. Lincoln Elementary plans to implement it next year.

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Eating after recess helps students to not rush through lunch or throw their lunch away so they can go play faster, said CeCie Scharman, health and physical education supervisor for the Salt Lake district.

It also has made students less rowdy during lunch and less likely to be sick during play, said Canyons spokesman Jeffrey Haney.

"Unfortunately, there a lot of schools doing away with recess," Scharman said. "They are trying to have more math and language arts. I am not saying that is not important, but just think of kids sitting all day and doing academics — how attention wanders. Their minds need clearing.

"We probably should be increasing recess time."

Email: slenz@desnews.com