Now, in Philadelphia, several outside organizations are working to help elementary schools improve student playtime. The Community Design Collaborative, which provides pro bono preliminary design services to nonprofit organizations, has coordinated almost 20 preliminary designs for schoolyards.
And Playworks, a national organization recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama, in conjunction with her national Let’s Move campaign, provides recess coaches for some schools, although the service costs money at a time when schools are strapped for so many other needs.
But paying attention to student play can pay other dividends.
According to a 2013 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatricians, having recess helps students process the information they learn in the classroom. Children develop their cognitive understanding through interactive, manipulative experiences, the report said.
And children process information best when a period of interruption follows a period of concentrated instruction. Unstructured social environments make kids more attentive and productive in the classroom, the academy reported.
In 2010, when Beresin and her students surveyed Philadelphia schoolyards, they found 50 percent of the yards to be inadequate, with broken pavement, ruined equipment, or cars parked where there used to be play space.
This was true for Greenfield School in Center City before its playground underwent a redesign process that began in 2009. “We had a dumpster enclosure that oozed out gross liquid onto the schoolyard,” said principal Daniel Lazar. There were also more than 20 cars parked on the asphalt each day, with the cars moving in and out as students played on the available space.
“A beautiful playground is a monument to children's freedom,” said Beresin. “Great playground design is most useful for validating play itself, particularly in the eyes of the grownups.”
At Greenfield School, the Community Design Collaborative worked with a committee of parents, teachers, and other community members to create a comprehensive plan and provide technical support for the transformation.
Today, after seven years, five construction phases, and nearly $1 million in combined investments from donors like the Philadelphia Water Department, Greenfield’s playground boasts amenities from an agricultural zone with fruit-bearing trees to a rain garden that absorbs 97 percent of the rainwater that falls on its grounds.
“There’s more for our kids to do in our yard now,” said Lazar, reflecting on the changes over the last decade.
“At recess, they learn how to solve their own conflicts, and in the classroom, teachers deal with less management issues and students focus more because they’ve had time to work off built-up energy.”
Open to the community, Greenfield’s playground has become a stimulating environment for children’s 22 minutes of unstructured daily play, an outdoor classroom, and a place of brief repose for neighborhood passersby.