Susan Comfort of Playworks on making the most of recess

Jan 16, 2014

Susan Comfort, the executive director of Playworks DC, took questions about recess and why it benefits kids' physical, social and academic development.

Thanks so much for joining us today to talk about recess. Susan Comfort, the executive director of Playworks D.C., is here to take your questions about how recess can help children academically and emotionally. Here is a link to today's Local Living story about Playworks and recess. Let's get started!

Hi everybody! Thrilled to see our kids on the cover of Local Living today, showing everyone what a great time can be had at a Playworks recess. Look forward to your questions. I’ll start by addressing a few that are already in the queue…

i hear that your favorite piece of playground equipment says a lot about a person. what's your favorite ...and why? what do you think it says about you?

Growing up in Baltimore, I loved jumping rope, especially Double Dutch. And now I get to do it at recess with our kids! I guess what it says about me is I like to work with others and I certainly have a tendency to  “jump in with both feet.” What is YOUR  favorite piece of equipment or recess game? 

Adults may take a coffee break, but wouldn't it be great if they too got recess where they went outside for 15 minutes of fun.

I totally agree and we try to practice what we preach here at the Playworks DC office. I think expecting kids to enjoy a day at school without recess is like expecting a coffee drinker to enjoy a day at work without their java (of course, kids tap into their energy much more naturally than we do). That said, we DO offer what we call “corporate recess” – for a fee, we will come to your office and lead adults in games. It’s super fun. Just ask our partners at Booz Allen Hamilton. 

My oldest child is a 3rd grader with Asperger's, and recess has become a source of misery for her. She frequently ends up spending the period alone, because she has trouble making friends and has become too afraid of rejection after some recent bad experiences to try to ask the other kids if she can join in with them. After-school playdates are out for the same reason. Fortunately, she has siblings at home with whom she's very close, and a few friends from past years, so she's not socially isolated outside of school. I have spoken to her teacher, who has agreed to work on this, but it's making her miserable and she now hates going to school (recess was never a problem before this year). Do you have any suggestions?

I really feel for your daughter (I come at this work from personal passions related to my children) because kids learn so many skills through play but it’s not always effortless for a child on the spectrum. The good news is, the challenge is address-able, and quickly, but it's likely teacher training is needed.

As you probably know, kids on the autism spectrum tend to respond extremely well to a Playworks-style program because we provide organization (new games, agreed-upon rules, boundaries)  within which they can thrive…sometimes kids who are less apt to be social can more easily engage with other children through a game. And in the process, other kids develop empathy and see that child as “one of them.”  I strongly recommend that your school pursue Playworks training. We offer professional development workshops for adults, spanning one day or several months.

And FYI, in first grade my daughter suddenly came home saying “I don’t like school. I don’t want to go to school.” We didn’t know why. Finally unraveled that she was getting excluded at recess by the third graders. Her school's teachers got trained and the problem improved. 

How do we ensure kids stay active when it gets so cold outside and students must stay in the classroom?

We facilitate indoor recess, of course! We have a bevy of games (available online for free) that work inside, even inside a classroom (or living room) setting. Check it out. You don't need good weather to stay active or build teamwork skills.

Is one more important than the other during a school day? Why or why not?



Recess supports academics by returning students to class ready to learn. AND what recess can teach that academic classes usually CAN'T is all the other valuable skills that children need to succeed. Paul Tough's excellent book, How Children Succeed, established a “character hypothesis”: the notion that non-cognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.


I just looked at one of your links. You have games recommended I remember from my youth. Yet there are about four games with the names "alligator" and "animal" in them I have never heard of. Did I leave a sheltered life or are these relatively newer games? If they are new, do you know who created them or how they came to exist?

Thanks for checking out the games! Many games have similar names (Pulse is the same as Birds of Prey) and many come from different regions, so I hope there is something that everyone recognizes in there, and many new games to learn! You can access hundreds of games on our website for free. Have fun exploring...

One common form of punishment in schools is taking away recess for kids who need to finish work or are acting out. How do we guarantee that kids get a necessary break for play each day?

As you can imagine, this is a pet peeve of Playworkers. We even published a blog on this with additional ideas/resources.


It's also a topic in the media of late because taking away recess has become a common practice among teachers trying to rein in unruly students. Multiple recent studies have shown that over 75% and 80% of schools allowed taking away recess as a punishment.  Read more in Nixing Recess: The Silly, Alarmingly Popular Way to Punish Kids” (The Atlantic 2013)


When I was in elementary school, we had 2-3 recesses each day, plus gym class 2 or 3 days per week. Our teachers were also free to create a make-shift recess if they felt one was needed, and on days with bad weather, we had recess in the gym. My kids (Kindergarten and 3rd grade) only have one recess each day, and that's not every day. No recess at all in inclement weather. And the K recess is the very last thing of the school day. I understand scheduling issues and the "fear" that American kids are behind. They are behind, but keeping little kids at their desks is not the answer. The school day is the same length as it was 30 years ago, and sometimes longer. How do we get school districts to see the light?

The then vs. now juxtaposition you cite is not uncommon. Today, an elementary school child stays in school for a minimum of 7 hours – some stay in school much longer than that – and you are going to tell me 15 minutes of recess is enough? Studies show kids behave better in class if they have recess.  Finland credits recess with its astounding academic success. What will it take school districts see the light? More parents like you and I, complaining, I think! The Washington Post covered this last Labor Day, when some Capitol Hill parents were outraged that certain DCPS schools had only 15 minutes of recess planned. I think parents have got to start asking principals about recess, just as they should ask about academics, arts, language and P.E.

My son who is in kindergarten recently told me that the he loves playing tetherball at recess but the older kids are always using it and he never gets a turn. How do you handle having older and younger kids on the playground at the same time?

We encourage our older students to step up as leaders and make sure EVERY child gets to play. Playworks Coaches and Junior Coaches introduce challenges such as, in kickball, "everyone has to touch the ball before it can get back to the pitcher" to foster inclusion. In tetherball, make sure everyone in line gets a chance before anyone can play again. Also, make sure there are lots of options of games for all ages to participate.

We love to play games with our kids, but sometimes they end up getting into fights over differences in rules or just stubbornness. How do you help with the all of the different rules that kids bring to games?

Rules are important...not just to the game itself, but for developing executive functioning skills.

We set the rules at the beginning of the game so everyone is on the same page. If kids bring different rules, we all agree together which ones we'll follow. Conflicts are quickly settled by roshambo (rock paper scissors) so kids can keep playing!  

Sound simple? It actually is. This is not rocket science. Kids are experts at play. We just have to give them the space and the time, and sometimes a little coaching.

Hello, I work for a local government in the Capitol region. How long did it take from introduction to DC schools to pilot implementation?

We started in DC schools in 2006, with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Playworks founded in 1996 as "Sports4Kids" in Oakland by social entrepreneur Jill Vialet). We usually implement what we call "recess roll-out" in new districts (6 months in advance of the school year) to show how our program works. Schools were hungry for this program in D.C. and we are hopeful we can raise the money to serve Prince George's County schools soon, as well. Today, all of the money that is spent locally is also raised locally, so we require local investment to fuel our growth.

Hi Susan, Have you found children of all ages (Kindergarten through High School) go back to the classroom ready to learn when they have had choices for play at recess? Would you like to see recess offered before and after school to students? As a full-time play advocate and author of "Let's Play at the Playground" I have found when children see photographs of other children playing that they want to show other children and adults what they like to play. Does Play Works have bulletin boards in their schools with information about play and photographs of children playing? In 2009 I founded in Takoma Park, Maryland.  Thumbs up to Susan for helping to lead the play movement in DC and to Jill for writing "Recess Rules." This fun book parallels what Coaches do everyday at Playworks. Keep playing!

Hi Pat Rumbaugh, the Play Lady! We are such admirers of everything you do with Takoma Plays (local folks, you should come check out the Mid-Winter Play Day in Takoma Park MD on Feb 9). We recently got the scientific  measurement of what we’ve seen for years – that on average,  with Playworks, kids spend one-third fewer minutes transitioning  from recess to class.  We also work with our school partners to offer before school and after school recess, not to mention “Junior Coach” leadership and developmental sports leagues. We also have bulletin boards at every school. Let’s get Playworks in to train some elementary schools in Montgomery County!

My school doesn't qualify for Playworks because we aren't a "low income" school. Any ideas on how we can have a Playworks-type of program?

Playworks training! Please visit our website and talk with your regional representative about what your school needs. We can serve any school, anywhere, with a wide range of budgets. 

Recess can help relax minds and build physical fitness so students feel and learn better. What do you recommend, though, in dealing with bullying students, as recess is often the time when bullying occurs.

In a recent randomized controlled trial, teachers in Playworks schools reported dramatically less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess than teachers in control schools. We are not explicitly an anti-bullying program, yet the Playworks program yielded some of the strongest reductions of problem behaviors that researchers in this area have seen. I say all the time—it’s not that our coaches are good at breaking up fights or catching bullying…they set up a recess that is so fun and inclusive, bullying doesn’t even have a chance to take root.

What would your advice be to orgs working to initiate more physical activity in high schools? How do we get all staff to be supportive of new program that they may not think are conducive for high schoolers?

Honestly, our program was built for elementary schools, and we can adapt some components to middle school. High school is not remotely in our wheelhouse. But I'm sure there are many effective practices out there somewhere that you can learn from -- good luck...

How does what you 'teach' at Playworks translate into the home and the community?


Check out this resource "Playworks at Home" (outdoor games, conversation starters, etc)

What would you recommend Congress do to improve itself during recess?

 That’s a different kind of recess, of course, but I can’t think of a “class” of “bullies” that needs more fun, more inclusion, more conflict resolution, than today’s Members of Congress! We’d love to facilitate recess for them one day. While I wouldn’t recommend deciding on laws using RoShamBo (rock paper scissors) I do think playing together could re-introduce the respect and civility that is so sorely lacking these days. Who’s in to help Playworks organize an inclusive Congressional  “recess” involving games instead of partisan rancor? 

Our school still keeps kids benched or indoors at recess for misbehavior and other digressions. This is just wrong, but they don't know any other ways to discipline these kids. What can we do?

A few things here. First, look into ACE scores. This website explains what ACEs are, and argues that punishing kids who've had a number adverse childhood experiences for acting out is essentially punishing them for behaviors that are completely natural brain reactions to situations consistently out of their control. This applies to all income levels, BTW.

Secondly, and I sound like a broken record here, get those teachers some training!  A Playworks-style recess results in fewer injuries and fewer fights, simply by establishing play “rules” (think: boundaries, or no pushing) and a fun, inclusive play environment. Principals tell us school nurse visits and mid-day discipline issues virtually disappear when Playworks is part of the picture. We offer lots of "group management" and alternative discipline options.

Can you talk about the capacity & logistics of the program; how many students per adult facilitator, equipment needs, etc.? Also, is there any transition time or processing time at the end of recess before returning to the classroom?

The great thing about kids and recess is that they are incredibly creative. With little to no equipment our Coaches and students can engage in play for the entire period. Playworks recesses begin with stations set up by Junior Coaches (jump ropes, hula hoops, four-square and wall ball, tag, etc) and the coach goes over the Recess Agreements with everyone before they can play.  "Be Respectful, Be Safe & Have Fun" are common agreements. As students line up after a fun-filled recess period, the coach will do a cheer and cool-down to get them physically and mentally prepared to re-enter the building and get down to business in the classroom.

Would you please tell us some of the findings on how recess physical activity improves learning abilities?

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study by Dr. Romina Barros at Einstein University. It found that students who had 15 minutes of recess a day behaved better in class and are more likely to learn more.

Here’s something I wanted to share for the parents out there who are trying to increase THEIR physical activity. My brother recently gave me a Jawbone, and I'm having trouble with the 10,000 steps a day goal. The other day my kids and I went for a walk (which they grumbled about) that ended at a great playground. By walking there, and playing freeze tag, four square, and other games, I racked up a high of 16,000 steps on the Jawbone!

Why don't the schools do this themselves?

Schools can absolutely do this themselves. That's what we're striving for--ideally we'll put ourselves out of business eventually. It just guessed it...the will to change our current recess culture and TRAINING to improve skills. We can, and should, shift recess to a positive time of day for all students. Many times, a student's perception of the whole day is based on how recess went. As Chancellor Henderson said to us, what good are higher test scores if kids don't like school? We are hopeful that the DC area, and all parts of the country, will take recess seriously. Listen to our founder Jill, who says it best.

In This Chat
Susan Comfort
Susan Comfort is the executive director of Playworks of Washington, D.C. A native of Baltimore, Susan bikes to work often, practices yoga as much as possible and enjoys Playworks games with her two kids.
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