The West Philadelphia Recess Initiative through the UPenn Fox Leadership Institute

Posted by on March 24, 2011

Project Description: The West Philadelphia Recess Initiative

Professor: Mary Summers

Class titles related to this project: Healthy Schools (Through Fox Leadership School)

The West Philadelphia Recess Initiative developed out of a partnership between my Healthy Schools class, the Penn Graduate School of Education (GSE) and the School Health Council at the Henry Lea school about three and a half years ago. The Council identified a socialized recess program as a key focus for a university/school partnership to promote a healthier school environment. Undergraduate volunteers organize games at recess could help to encourage healthy play and physical activity and prevent bullying and violence. This initiative now involves volunteers, work study and service learning students under the umbrella of Penn’s Community School Student Partnerships to help support recess games and activities at two West Philadelphia/Penn GSE EMO schools (Lea and Wilson) five days a week while Penn is in session.

One of the components crucial to this program’s success has been establishing a school-based recess director at each school, who addresses issues ranging from logistics (getting children out to recess for at least 20 minutes of play) to developing positive on-going training, support and problem solving with both the school recess staff and the student support team.

This semester some students from the Healthy Schools class are working with Playworks (a national program to support healthy play in schools, which is now in place at 12 Philadelphia schools) at the Drew School. We are exploring the possibility that partnering with Playworks. This represents an excellent way of further developing and expanding a model for involving undergraduates in supporting healthy play at recess as an important component to promoting healthier schools and an improved school climate.

Other students in my Healthy Schools class are working with other school-based programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Urban Nutrition Initiative, Healthy NewsWorks, City Step, health related project based learning, and work with the autistic support program in the Wilson Community School program.

Q&A with Mary Summers Re: The West Philadelphia Recess Initiative and Playworks as a Community Partner:

Q: How did you find “Playworks” and get them to be a non-profit partner in your initiative?

A: Once you start working with recess, you start looking up who is doing good work in that area and Playworks comes up a lot. Playworks started out as “sports4kids” to help organize games  during recess. Playworks focuses on giving recess time more structure so that students have an increase of physical activity and a decrease in bullying on the playground.

Q: How did they get started in Philly?

A: They started in California, but now with funding from Robert Wood Johnson have established programs in major cities around the country. When I reached out to them for resources for trainings for undergrads working in our West Philadelphia Recess Initiative, they told me they were going to come to Philadelphia last spring. They now have “recess coaches” in 12 different schools in Philadelphia. [Mary’s students work in three schools, one of which is supported by Playworks]

Q: What were the benefits of having Playworks on board as a partner?

A: Playworks provides specific and valuable training and consistent supervision for my students. They also have a nationally recognized and researched model. Not many schools do “recess training” which is why Playworks is unique.

Q: How did you originally support your undergrad students?

A: Originally I thought we could have graduate students support undergrads. We realized quickly that we needed someone “inside” the school as the recess coordinator.
In one school we have the parent ombudsman, and in the other the community school associate director. [this structure was created before Playworks came in as a support]

Q: What is the “Playworks model”?

A: Playworks sends a full time coach in to the schools who is typically an Americorps member. The “coach” is in the school all day in various roles to direct recess, work in classrooms to teach games and conflict resolution (especially Rock, Paper, Scissors), develop a “junior coach” program, and run an after school program.

Q: Would Philadelphia Playworks partner with more colleges and universities?

A:  Playworks would love to partner with more colleges and universities, because college students are a great resource and support for these programs. They’d ideally be partnering with a service learning program or a student support group that would manage student recruitment and all the logistics of student clearances and transportation, as well as helping to guarantee a consistent program.

Q: Why was it important for you to have Playworks as a partner if you already had some support from Penn and from your schools?

A: It was a huge amount of work to establish our initial Recess Initiative at two partner schools. It took us three years to establish a program with a recess director who could work effectively with both the school staff and the undergraduates; and we are only just beginning to develop effective training programs. Partnering with Playworks makes it possible to imagine expanding this initiative to more schools. The great relief to me is having a nationally researched and evaluated program to train and supervise my students on the playground.

Q: What makes this a valuable experience for undergrad students?

A: Supporting recess gives college students with a great variety of interests (in health, special needs, nutrition etc.) a meaningful way to work with inner city students around those issues. Student support for a good recess program makes a real contribution to an under-resourced school. Participating in this kind of effort gives college students a real relationship with K-8 students and staff. It becomes a lot easier and more real to learn about many important issues in urban education in the recess setting. It also becomes a lot easier to talk to school staff not only in the cafeteria and at recess, but also the school nurse, the guidance counselor and teachers. Recess is an ideal setting for undergrads to learn about urban education, while making a real contribution.

Q: Is school staff generally on board with this? (ie: noontime aids etc.)

A: Playworks is able to work with existing staff and appreciate the energy that undergrad students can bring at the same time. Our local West Philadelphia Recess Initiative was developed by working with a School Health Council to identify their greatest needs in terms of improving student health. They thought organizing more games at recess was a crucial way of preventing bullying and promoting more physical activity; so the program is directly serving a need that was identified by the school. We also have support from the Noon Time Aids’ union, which would like to see their members better supported and to receive more training.

Article about the West Philadelphia Recess Initiative:

Playworks in Philadelphia:

Playworks Philadelphia Contacts: Joe Kelly<>, Program Director

National web site:

Video about what a difference a Playworks Coach can make in a school:

More in "K-16 Partnerships"

Stay Current in Philly's Higher Education and Nonprofit Sector

We compile a weekly email with local events, resources, national conferences, calls for proposals, grant, volunteer and job opportunities in the higher education and nonprofit sectors.