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Sports4Kids Brings Play Back to Playgrounds

  • Maria Hickey

Play seems to come naturally to children. But in many American cities, kids are spending less and less time outdoors or playing organized sports. So, Sports4Kids is reintroducing basic games back to the school playground. Since 1996, the program has become a part of 130 U.S. schools, from the West Coast to the East. Recently, Sports4Kids sent several coaches to the middle of the country: St. Louis, Missouri. Maria Hickey visited one of eight schools where the program is being introduced.

Simmons-Marshall Magnet Elementary school is one of the oldest schools in St. Louis. It was built in 1900. The red brick building is in good shape, but the neighborhood surrounding it is run down, with vacant lots and several boarded up buildings.

The children on the playground, though, take little notice. They're focused on a game that's a little like Follow the Leader. Calvet Liburd is their enthusiastic leader. The Sports4Kids coach is in St. Louis for a week, to help introduce the program here and to show both kids and teachers what they can get out of recess.

He explains the group's mission as re-introducing games in certain cities, adding, "we're providing play for the kids in the communities and the public schools that forgot how to play or really don't know how to play." This week, Liburd is teaching the children at Simmons-Marshall simple ball-bouncing games like Four-Square and Wall Ball, and lots of games of tag.

After just three days learning games before school and during the after-lunch recess, second grader Raykel Dickson is excited about the more structured playtime. "We play Wall Ball, Switch, and then we play Cookie Monster and Mr. and Mrs. Fox," she says, counting off the games she's learned. "It's different because we get to play, and all we do in regular recess is run around."

Most of the children at Simmons-Marshall are from low-income families, and few get to run around outside in their own neighborhoods. Recess is their one chance to play. And for Sports4Kids founder Jill Vialet, recess is about a lot more than just having fun. She says structured play not only gets kids active, (something every school is striving to do as childhood obesity rates rise in the U.S.) but it also helps children develop intellectually and emotionally.

"It's pretty clear that when kids are playing there's a real cognitive shift that goes on," she explains. "They're using a part of their brain that is improvisational, that's flexible, that's creative, that responds to changing situations, and that's really developmentally huge."

But Vialet says recess in the U.S. has increasingly been given short shrift. That's partly because of the national focus on raising test scores. But it's also because many school principals and teachers see recess as a problem. It's a time when fights can break out, and that trouble can spill back into the classroom.

Sports4Kids teaches kids simple tools to resolve their own conflicts, like playing Rock, Paper, Scissors to pick a winner in a disagreement.

That's working at William H. Ohrenberger Elementary School in Boston, according to Principal Steve Zrike. It's his first year at the school, but he says he's heard from teachers that recess was chaotic before Sports4Kids arrived two years ago. "Teachers were picking up the pieces as they were picking up their children at recess every day, and there was a lot of drama and conflict that was ensuing outside, and it was really trickling into instructional time. So one of the things I think they've noticed is that children come back a lot happier and a lot more fulfilled by their recess experience."

Back at Simmons-Marshall in St. Louis, the students seem eager to have a coach like Calvet Liburd at their school full time. "You know, a couple of kids have told me, 'Coach Calvet, are you going to be here next week?'" he reports. When he told them he was just there for the week, they wanted to know if he could come back. "I said 'Yeah, I'll come back,' but hopefully we'll be back here next year and the kids will be able to have fun."

That will depend on whether Simmons-Marshall Elementary can come up with the funding. But whether or not Sports4Kids plays here in St. Louis, the program has big goals. It plans to be in 27 U.S. cities by 2012.