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At a Glance


Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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Evaluating the Playworks Program

An estimated 40 percent of American schoolchildren no longer have recess. For children in low-income schools, tight budgets, safety concerns, and lack of playgrounds are all cited as reasons for the decline of recess. Yet even 15 minutes of play time during the day has been shown to have positive impacts on kids’ academic achievement.

The Playworks program, an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, places full-time coaches in low-income schools to provide opportunities for organized play during recess and throughout the school day. Playworks activities are designed to engage students in physical activity, foster social skills related to cooperation and conflict resolution, improve students’ ability to focus on class work, decrease behavioral problems, and improve school climate.  

Mathematica and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University conducted the first rigorous evaluation of the implementation and impact of the Playworks program. In the first part of the evaluation, 25 schools interested in implementing Playworks were randomly assigned to a treatment group that received Playworks in the 2010–2011 school year or to a control group that was not eligible to implement Playworks until the following year. Mathematica collected data from students, teachers, and school staff in spring 2011 to document implementation and assess the impact of the program on (1) school climate, (2) conflict resolution and aggression, (3) learning and academic performance, (4) recess experience, (5) youth development, and (6) student behavior.

During the 2011-2012 school year, the study was expanded to include four additional schools and examine data collected via school administrative records, accelerometers, and recess observations. 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).


"Impact and Implementation Findings from an Experimental Evaluation of Playworks: Effects on School Climate, Academic Learning, Student Social Skills and Behavior" (May 2013)
"Playworks Implementation in 17 Schools from 6 U.S. Cities" (May 2013)
"Findings from an Experimental Evaluation of Playworks: Effects on Play, Physical Activity and Recess" (May 2013)
"Findings from a Randomized Experiment of Playworks: Selected Results from Cohort I" (April 2012)