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New Study: Does Better Recess Equal a Better School Day in Detroit?

Randomized controlled trial of popular recess program shows widespread benefits, including less bullying, more physical activity, and more time for teaching.

DETROIT,MI, May 14, 2013 — A new study released today from Mathematica Policy Research and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University suggests that there may be more to recess than just a break in the school day.

The randomized controlled trial of Playworks, a nonprofit organization that delivers a safe, healthy recess in low-income elementary schools in 22 U.S. cities, including Detroit, found that the program reduced bullying, enhanced feelings of safety at school, increased vigorous physical activity during recess, and provided more time for classroom teaching. The research raises the possibility that what happens at recess can affect a school’s learning environment in important ways, and that improving recess and play may enable schools to address a number of pressing issues at the same time.

“These findings reinforce what we have seen across the nation in schools that partner with Playworks to make recess and play a priority,” said Nancy Barrand, senior advisor for program development with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This study suggests that a great recess is an essential building block for healthy school environments that help kids thrive socially, emotionally, and physically.”

Key findings include:

  • Less Bullying. Teachers in Playworks schools reported significantly less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess compared to teachers in control schools—a 43 percent difference in average rating scores.
  • Increased Feelings of Safety at School. Playworks teachers’ average rating of students’ feelings of safety at school was 20 percent higher than the average rating reported by teachers in control schools.
  • More Vigorous Physical Activity. Accelerometer data showed that children in Playworks schools spent significantly more time engaged in vigorous physical activity at recess than their peers in control schools (14 percent versus 10 percent of recess time—a 43 percent difference).
  • Ready to Learn. Teachers in Playworks schools reported spending significantly less time to transition from recess to learning activities (34 percent fewer minutes).

According to Susanne James-Burdumy, Ph.D., education area leader for Mathematica, “Playworks had a positive impact on outcomes in the school climate, conflict resolution and aggression, learning and academic performance, and physical activity domains. These impacts suggest that Playworks was beneficial to schools, teachers, and students along multiple dimensions.”

Despite shrinking budgets, schools are faced with the challenge of boosting academic performance while also having to address the social, emotional, and physical needs of students. Recess and other school-based playtime are some of the least-studied elements of the school day. Elementary school principals and teachers often say, however, that as goes recess, so goes the school day. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that “recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.”

This new research contributes to a growing body of evidence that a safe, healthy, and organized recess environment—like the one Playworks provides—has the potential to be a key driver of better behavior and learning. A non-experimental study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco found that students from schools with Playworks reported higher levels of physical activity, participation at school, problem-solving, and goals/aspirations compared to students from schools without Playworks. In another evaluation, the Harvard Family Research Project credited Playworks with improving cooperation and bonds among students and between kids and adults in school. In Baltimore, principals have reported using programs such as Playworks to make progress in reducing conflict and suspensions.

“If we want to bring out the best in our kids, we should start by giving them a great recess,” said Jill Vialet, CEO and founder of Playworks. “A great recess primes young people to learn and puts them in a better position to succeed in school and in life. It’s also something every school
can provide.”

Mathematica Policy Research and the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University conducted a rigorous evaluation of Playworks during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. Twenty-nine schools interested in Playworks were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Data were collected from students, teachers, school staff and administrative records to document key outcomes related to school climate, conflict resolution and aggression, learning and academic performance, youth development, student behavior, play, physical activity and recess.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable and timely change. For nearly 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit

About Playworks
Playworks is a national nonprofit organization that transforms schools by providing play and physical activity at recess and throughout the school day. Through on-site direct service and trainer-led professional development workshops, Playworks restores valuable teaching time, reduces bullying, increases physical activity and improves the school and learning environment.

Playworks currently serves 367 schools in 22 cities and reaches nearly 270,000 students directly and through training services in more than 475 additional schools and community organizations. With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other investors, Playworks is fulfilling an ambitious national expansion effort with the goal of operating in 27 cities across the country by 2016, providing play and physical activity to more than 1 million students every day.

About Mathematica Policy Research
Mathematica Policy Research seeks to improve public well-being by conducting studies and assisting clients with program evaluation and policy research, survey design and data collection, research assessment and interpretation and program performance/data management. Its clients include foundations, federal and state governments and private-sector and international organizations. The employee-owned company, with offices in Princeton, NJ; Ann Arbor, MI; Cambridge, MA; Chicago, IL; Oakland, CA; and Washington, DC; has conducted some of the most important studies of education, health care, nutrition, international, disability, family support, employment and early childhood policies and programs.

About the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University
The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University partners with communities to carry out three inter-related goals. Develop Leadership: Build relationships and capacity among community organizations to identify shared challenges; foster partnership between the university and community to engage in evidence-based inquiry and decision-making to find common solutions related to youth and communities. Conduct Research: Collect and analyze data to understand youth across contexts and across a range of developmental domains; engage in high-quality evaluation of youth-serving programs and services. Effect Change: Support community stakeholders to translate research findings into actionable knowledge, and to identify the most effective levers for programmatic and policy improvement.

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