Playworks: Student and School Outcomes

Prepared for
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Many children—by some estimates, 40 percent—no longer have recess during a typical school day. Tighter budgets, safety concerns, and lack of recreational space have contributed to the decline of recess, particularly in low-income schools. At the same time, research has documented a link between physical activity and classroom success, with just 15 minutes of play time each day producing a positive impact on academic achievement.

To help reinvigorate recess, the Playworks program places full-time coaches in low-income schools to organize and oversee play during recess. The program aims to engage students in physical activity, foster social skills, improve ability to focus on class work, decrease behavioral problems, and improve school climate.

Mathematica conducted the first rigorous evaluation of the implementation and impact of the Playworks program. In summer 2010, 25 schools were randomly assigned to either the treatment group, which implemented Playworks during the 2010–2011 academic year, or the control group, which could not implement it until the following year. Mathematica collected data in both spring 2011 and 2012 from students, teachers, and staff to assess the impact of the program on school climate as well as student:

  • Conflict resolution and aggression
  • Learning and academic performance
  • Recess experience and physical activity
  • Behavior and development

Administrative records abstraction, teacher and student surveys, accelerometers to track physical activity, and interviews, focus groups, and observations of recess were all included in the data collection. Key findings included the following:

  • Less bullying: Teachers in Playworks schools reported significantly less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess.
  • Increased feelings of safety: Playworks teachers reported a higher average rating of students’ feelings of safety at school.
  • More vigorous physical activity. Accelerometer data showed that children in Playworks schools spent significantly more time engaged in vigorous physical activity at recess.
  • Ready to learn. Teachers in Playworks schools reported spending significantly less time transitioning from recess to learning activities.