SAN FRANCISCO — In the New York City elementary school where Sara Shenkan-Rich used to work a few years ago, students squabbled over petty things, bullied each other, were restless in class and showed high levels of stress.
But at the Sherman Elementary School in San Francisco’s Marina District where she is the principal, kids go though the day with a purpose, stay focused while learning the 3 Rs and resolve conflicts with the age-old hand game of rock-paper-scissors.
You wouldn’t think that about half of them are enrolled in the school’s free lunch program for disadvantaged children.
New research by the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF) shows that children who spend some time outside the classroom during the school day do better in class academically, socially and emotionally. The research findings were published in the August issue of the Journal of School Health.
“School-based playtime not only improves the physical health of students, but leads to stronger emotional resiliency,” noted Dr. Kristine Madsen, head researcher of the UCSF study. “After physical activity, kids show greater concentration in class.”
The UCSF study is the first to compare physical and emotional health outcomes between students in schools that participate in the program offered by the Oakland-based non-profit, Playworks, and a control group.
It relied on data from the California Healthy Kids Survey in 158 Bay Area school districts to determine how the experiences of low-income 5th graders had changed from 2001 to 2007. The annual survey is mandated by the state.
Playworks, started 10 years ago, only contracts with elementary schools where 50 percent or more of the students are on the school’s free lunch program.
Sherman Elementary is one of 320 elementary schools nationwide, 101 of them in California, where Playworks runs its recess program to improve the overall learning environment at school.
Playworks’ president Elizabeth Cushing said her organization limits its participation to schools with disadvantaged students because they tend to have less community support and are not free to roam their neighborhoods, sometimes even their own backyards, without adult supervision. Additionally, few have opportunities for after school recreational activities, Cushing said.
“We serve the neediest,” she said, noting: “Oakland schools have had us (participated in Playworks) for quite a while.”
For a $24,000 fee, each participating school gets a 9-to-5 Playworks coach every day of the week, which is about half the actual cost, Cushing said. The balance is made up with money from grants and donations.
After a two-week training where would-be-coaches are taught how to amicably resolve conflicts among children and ensure that “every kid is included in games,” Playworks sends their coaches out. The coaches work with the children on the playground before, between and after the bells.
Teachers, who in recent years have been more anxious to force math and science on their students than encourage them to run out and play because of standardized testing mandated through the “No Child Left Behind” Act, are encouraged to participate in the organized games.
“When teachers play, it builds a different relationship that ripples into the classroom,” Cushing said. And structured recess, she said, simply transforms the rules of the classroom into the playground.
Children in fourth and fifth grades are trained to supervise the younger students on the playground, building up leadership skills.
With schools cutting back on physical education, low-income students are likely to be disproportionately impacted, said Madsen, who worries about what she calls “the unintended consequences” of personal electronic gadgets on the emotional well being of students.
“There’s a lot more learned face-to-face than when communication is muted,” she said.