Schoolyard Fight: Meet the Funders Behind Playworks and the Push to Bring Back Recess

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, according to the old proverb. It may also make Jack — and Jill, for that matter — ill, aggressive, and less engaged at school.

For school children of years past, recess was a favorite part of the day, a chance to close the books, get outside, and run around the schoolyard with friends, playing impromptu games of tag or kickball. Unfortunately, for many of today's students, recess is little more than a memory or a wish. Public schools, feeling the pressure to improve performance on standardized tests and cram other activities into the school day, have been reducing time for recess — or even eliminating it together.

So how's that working out? It doesn't appear to be paying off in improved achievement, as scores in many states have improved only slightly or remained flat amid rising standards and expectations. Meanwhile, childhood obesity rates have increased as children spend more time in structured activities or in front of television and computer screens, and far less time playing outside. The federal Centers for Disease Control reported in 2012 that nearly 20 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 11 are overweight or obese — in some cases, morbidly obese.

We've reported on a variety of funding efforts that focus on getting kids outside, and we've also written about funders who are specifically devoted to promoting the value of play, most notably the new Caplan Foundation for Early Childhood, endowed with the fortune of a toymaking couple. 

Related: A New Foundation That Believes in the Power of Play

Well, here's another part of this emerging story: Some funders are getting behind Playworks, an Oakland, CA-based nonprofit that advocates a healthy recess time in elementary schools across the country. 

Children need unstructured play time because it boosts student learning, attention spans, and overall well-being. That's a core message of Playworks, and it's resonating with a growing number of backers, who have joined the ranks of the group's supporters.

We've written before about Playworks founder Jill Vialet, who received one of the 2013 Leadership Awards from the James Irvine Foundation. Through its awards program, Irvine honors Californians who offer innovative solutions to pressing problems in the Golden State. For Vialet and Playworks, one such problem is ensuring that the school day not only includes recess, but does so in a way that fosters values of inclusion, empathy, conflict resolution and teamwork.

Playworks does this by providing full-time adult coaches who introduce children to basic sports and physical fitness activities, while simultaneously ensuring all children are included in the activities and that they learn values of teamwork, safety, and conflict resolution. Playworks also provides professional development activities for teachers and other school staff to create healthy, inclusive recess opportunities.

A study of schools by Mathematica Policy Research and the John Gardner Center at Stanford University found that Playworks schools reported less bullying, greater physical activity by students, and greater engagement in the classroom, which translates to more learning time. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the evaluation, which compared Playworks schools with a control group, and is one of Playworks' biggest supporters. RWJF has given more than $1 million to the organization.

In addition to Irvine and RWJF, other supporters of Playworks include an impressive slate of health and education program funders, as well as corporate and individual donors. Some of these include the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, health care provider Kaiser Permanente, the late Texas philanthropist Gladys Jensen, the Kresge Foundation, the General Mills Foundation, insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the Boston Foundation. These and many other funders have given between $50,000 and $1 million to Playworks in support of its efforts to keep recess an important part of each school day.

The lesson for nonprofits, here, is that if you have an idea that focuses on an unaddressed or neglected need, and if your solutions can show success in "moving the needle," there are funders out there willing to invest in you and your organization.