THE BRONX — Kevin Goodman, the principal of Morrisania’s P.S. 66, wanted a more positive way to curb unruly behavior and fights during recess.
So, this year he brought in a “play coach” from nonprofit Asphalt Green, who is creating a more organized recess with games such as dodge ball, jump rope and relay races.
Already Goodman is seeing kids demonstrate greater patience and the ability to take turns, collaborate and share at a school.
It's a big shift at a school where only 34 percent of teachers said that order and safety were maintained at the school — which is significantly lower than the citywide average of 82 percent — according to last year’s Department of Education school survey.
“So, far it seems to be working well,” said Goodman. “Last year there were pretty regular issues surfacing after lunch, making it tough for teachers to do their thing in the afternoon. Kids were arguing, fighting in certain instances. A lot of tears at the end of recess. The goal is to bring increased structure to the playground so that students have a more pleasant experience.”
Research shows such programs cut down on bullying and aggressive behavior at lunch time. The Department of Education does not keep records on how many of the city's 800 elementary schools have structured recess programs, but many principals say they are clamoring for it.
P.S. 66 was one of three new schools in The Bronx to join Asphalt Green's “recess enhancement program” this September. Goodman already wishes he could have more coaches and expand the program beyond two days a week, he said.
Asphalt Green, an Upper East Side and Battery Park City-based sport and fitness nonprofit, created a structured recess program about 15 years ago and now has a curriculum of more than 150 organized games, including many that can be played indoors.
The organization, which works with only about 60 schools a year, has a waitlist of schools hoping to sign up. Last year, it piloted a training to teach 15 schools its curriculum so their own staffs can lead the games without needing one of Asphalt Green's coaches. The organization hopes to expand that training this year.
Its program was found to increase students’ physical activity rates and reduce verbal aggressive behavior, according to a 2013 Hunter College study. In testimonials, many participating principals have said it helped reduce bullying.
A similar program called “Coach for Kids,” run by the Wellness in The Schools, that is in 33 schools, had a comparable affect.
Preliminary data from an evaluation with Teachers College Columbia University, indicated a statistically significant lower level of verbal conflict among children who participated in its recess program compared to those that did not have the program, the nonprofit said.
“The focus is on preventative measures," said Daniel Russo, principal of P.S. 294, whose South Bronx school has a coach from Wellness in the Schools two days a week.
“It’s like field day, every day, with different stations run by staff. There’s a soccer shootout station, steal-the-chicken, free play on the jungle gym," he said. "Students are engaged in something meaningful and purposeful with set expectations while still getting exercise."
When his Concourse school took over the building from the failing and phased-out P.S. 64, Russo analyzed incident reports from the other school and found that the majority of fights, injuries and bullying appeared to occur in the schoolyard, according to incident reports.
Most experts know that unsupervised areas, like schoolyards and hallways are the most common places where incidents occur, which is why a lot of schools would like to have more eyes on their playgrounds.
“It’s no surprise that a lot of fights happen during recess,” said Asphalt Green's community programs director David Ludwig.
His program will work with the school to understand where the conflicts are. For instance, if some fifth graders playing football are making passes across other parts of the school yard, a coach can create boundaries for them.
“When we send our play coach, that person isn’t going to be able to snap their fingers and make things perfect,” Ludwig said. “But we have lots of instances, where a bully comes under the wings of a coach. A lot of times they’re ready for more of a challenge, and if they become the coach’s helper, it helps.”
The structure especially helps schools that are large or have a lack of space or staff, particularly when recess has to stay indoors, he said.
Asphalt Green offers the heavily subsidized program mainly to low-income schools, for $12,000 a year for four days a week or $3,000 a year for twice a week. Schools on the Lower East Side, for instance, have used funding set aside for violence prevention to bring the coaches in.
There is, however, some concern about too much structure in kids' days.
A 2014 study of 70 6-year-olds from the universities of Colorado and Denver found that kids who spent time in less structured activities were more highly developed when it came to self-direction which is an early indicator of academic performance.
But the study proved correlation, not necessarily causation, meaning that self-directed kids might prefer less structured activities, according to Education Week.
Ludwig noted that his program doesn't aim to be too prescriptive and students are able to choose if they want to take part in the structured activities or just do their own thing.
“We believe in free time and free choice at recess,” Ludwig said. “We really don’t want recess to look like P.E.”