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Activists Look To Increase Play In D.C. Schools

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Playworks' Megan Cusick leads students in a series of games at Center City Public Charter School in Northeast D.C.
Jessica Gould
Playworks' Megan Cusick leads students in a series of games at Center City Public Charter School in Northeast D.C.

At the Trinidad campus of Center City Public Charter School in Northeast, D.C. students are twirling hula hoops, jumping rope, and playing kickball. It all seems like fun and games. And it is. But Megan Cusick says it’s much more than that. She's a coach with Playworks, a national nonprofit that promotes structured play at schools in low-income communities.

"Not only does it give kids an outlet, but teaching healthy play to kids can promote a lot of life skills, such as cooperating with each other, how to be a leader," Cusick says.

Every day, Cusick transforms the parking lot at Center City into a play-land. In front of a row of parked cars, she draws the chalk outlines for the game four square. On the field, she picks up shards of glass and scattered trash, and replaces them with cones for kickball.

Playworks D.C. Executive Director Paul Zimmerman says the organization, supported by donors and schools, is part of a movement to boost play in the lives of children.

"Many schools are actually canceling or significantly reducing recess," he says. "Why? Because of the test scores. The fighting, the bullying. The question is raised, can we not use this time more productively."

A 2008 study by the D.C.-based Center on Education Policy found that after the No Child Left Behind law went into effect, many schools shifted instructional time away from recess toward math and reading.

"What we found was that the average decrease of recess was 28 percent in schools across the country," says Jack Jennings, the Center's president. He says a desire to improve accountability and increase achievement has led to the emphasis on tests.

And Zimmerman doesn’t dispute the importance of assessments.

"Measuring achievement is very important," he says. "There's absolutely a critical role for that."

But, the activists say, there needs to be a balance. And the pro-play movement is gaining momentum. The D.C. Healthy Schools Act passed last year increases the amount of time city schools must devote to physical activity. In October, play activists held a giant block party in New York’s Central Park. And a group of D.C. parents, including Adrienne Gallo, have come together to apply for a charter school with a play-based curriculum for children in the early years of education.

Gallo serves as a board member for the school, called the City of Trees. Supporters are hoping to open the school in the fall of 2012.

"I do see that many of the schools, the public schools, have a heavy emphasis on academics and it’s being pushed down earlier and earlier, and as a result play is being pushed out," says Gallo.

Others say testing is only one of the factors contributing to a decline in play. Joan Almon, the executive director of the international play advocacy group Alliance for Childhood, says technology also plays a role.

""It’s not like somebody sat around and diabolically said, 'Oh, let’s take play away from children,'" she says. "Children between 8 and 18 spend 7 hours a day now in front of screens of one kind or another. Most of the time, they’re not even moving."

And as violence dominates the news, she says, parents are often afraid to let their children play outdoors.

"So because they're so bombarded with terrible things, they live in constant fear of their children's safety. ... And in fact there's a huge risk in not letting children out to play," she says.

Playworks’ Cusick says learning to play -- and play nice -- actually makes the streets safer. The organization teaches students to use rock, paper, scissors, to resolve the conflicts that erupt on the playground.

"That way, conflicts don't linger throughout the day. They're done. They're finished. And the kids are happy with the outcome," she says.

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a connection between recess and a child's ability to concentrate on academic tasks.

But, after testing all morning, 10-year-old Center City student Donnell Milligan doesn’t need experts to tell him recess is a good thing.

"After I let all my energy out and all my frustrations out, I get back focus to get through the rest of the day," he says.

And he'll need that focus. Because more tests await.


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