Recess is where kids figure out who they are and where they fit socially. —Allie Teller, Playworks program director
MIDVALE — Fifth-grader Bethany Prescott is a leader among students in her school.
Wearing a purple T-shirt with the words "Playworks Junior Coach" written across the front she and other junior coaches patrol recess activities daily at Copperview Elementary as part of a recess initiative designed to encourage physical activity and prevent bullying.
They monitor other young students in their volleyball, tennis, basketball or double-Dutch jump rope games, looking for conflicts in play groups or kids who might be left out.
"I like impacting kids' lives," Prescott said.
The recess activities and monitoring are the product of Playworks, a national nonprofit organization that trains students and school officials in directed recess activities.
A new study, released Tuesday by Mathematica Policy Research and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, notes a correlation between the directed recess programs and a decrease in bullying, more feelings of safety among students at school, shorter transition from recess to class instruction and more physical activity than schools without the program.
The study measured factors related to academics, conduct, play, school atmosphere and conflict resolution in 29 schools nationwide during the 2010-11 and 2011-2012 school years. Treatment and control groups were randomly assigned.
Playworks typically works with low-income schools to provide conflict resolution training and safe recess play. Its goal is to not only increase physical activity but to help with social and emotional development, Allie Teller, Playworks program director said.
To help with this process, each Playworks school has one full-time Playworks coach who teaches conflict resolution skills, monitors recesses, engages in classroom game time, mentors the junior coaches and oversees before and after school programs and developmental leagues.
Although playworks coaches provide game training and equipment, students can choose whether or not to participate in a given activity. Their goal is to educate students so they know what play options they have. The students are also encouraged to solve conflicts on their own.
"Recess is where kids figure out who they are and where they fit socially," Teller said.
Copperview Elementary School brought in the organization as part of a positive behavior initiative. Before this year, many of the students did not know how to handle the transition from the structure of schoolwork to recess where there was little guidance provided.
Since Playworks began working with the school, office disciplinary referrals during recess have nearly been cut in half, school principal Chanci Loran said.
Playworks works with more than 270,000 students in 360 schools located in 22 cities.
When Playworks coach Valita Ortiz — known to students as "Coach Vee" — first came to Copperview, she spent her first two weeks teaching the children about boundaries.
"Oh my. When I first came the kids really didn't have any concept of game playing at all," Vee said.
She dusted off old equipment and began to implement Playworks' program.
The simple act of bringing equipment for recess has its benefits, research shows. Schools that provide equipment to students saw an increase in physical activity according to a 2005 study in the European Journal of Public Health.
Moderate physical activity increased from 38 to 50 percent during lunch recess and from 41 to 45 percent in the morning break, while vigorous physical activity raised from 10 to 11 percent in the afternoon.
Directed recess programs like Playworks could be beneficial to reducing bullying if it incorporates the right balance of structure, creativity and self-motivation, said Emily Grossell, a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Grossell said she has many clients who have been victims of bullying and there is no clear solution to the problem. But she said striking a balance in the structure of recess play is a good start.
"In general kids need structure. They need structure and predictability to function at their optimal capacity," Grossell said.