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Playworks: We believe in the power of play to bring out the best in every kid!

Silicon Valley, United StatesCampbell, United States
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$1 million - $5 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Playworks believes in the power of play to bring out the best in every kid. Our goal: establish play and recess as a core strategy for improving children’s health and well-being. We support student's social/emotional learning to ensure they have positive relationships in a supportive environment.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if a positive recess could lead to happier, healthier students, and improved learning environments?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

In addressing how to improve schools, an overlooked opportunity to boost learning lies outside the classroom: on the playground at recess. In many public elementary schools recess has become the most concentrated time of conflicts, bullying and discipline issues. As a result, many students return to class frustrated, angry and unable to learn. Some students even miss hours of learning time because they are in the principal’s office or suspended.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Our solution is to support a culture of academic rigor by providing a program that teaches empathy, teamwork and leadership, transforming children, school climate and community. Learning these values leads to a more holistic education and a more empathetic generation. Playworks leverages recess into an asset to transform the entire school community for students and teachers alike. At each partner school Playworks places a dedicated coach who implements our program consisting of organized recess activities, a youth leadership program (the Junior Coaches), individual play and physical activity classes, before and after school programming and developmental sport leagues. We use play to help youth reach their full potential.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Playworks positively impacts children’s physical, cognitive and social development. Playworks places a full-time adult program coordinator, called a “coach”, at each of our low-income partner elementary schools. Coaches organize fun, play-based physical activities before, during & after school. Through our 5-component program, coaches transform the playground into a place where students learn essential skills such as teamwork, conflict resolution, empathy, and fair play. On our playgrounds every kid is encouraged to play. Inclusive language like, "good job/ nice try" replaces teasing and "you're out" so that kids don't get too discouraged. Youth leaders facilitate games for their peers, and take ownership over the playground experience.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact.

In 2010, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation contracted with Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University to conduct a rigorous, randomized control trial of Playworks. The study found that Playworks schools have less bullying; students behave better at recess; students have greater readiness for class; teachers have more time for teaching; schools feel safer; and nearly 100% of educators are satisfied with Playworks programming. This school year, Playworks will partner with 27 low-income elementary schools, providing our play and youth development programming to 14,000 students daily. Our youth leadership program will provide 405 4th/5th grade students with 30 hours of training on topics like conflict resolution, inclusion, leadership and community involvement. These "Junior Coaches" then make recess a safe and inclusive experience for their peers and younger students.

Full impact potential: What are the main spread strategies moving forward?

Playworks’ growth plan uses 2 reinforcing strategies for regional scale. 1: Expansion of our direct service programming through district wide partnerships to drive systems change throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo. We are looking to impact every school in districts like EPA, SJUSD, and SCUSD. 2: Provide training to schools that wish to duplicate Playworks’ model. We have a wait-list of 10 schools in the region. We want play based social emotional learning at every school in the region. We don't have resources to provide a coach to every school, but we can provide A+ training to everyone.

Funding: How is your project financially supported? Select all that apply

  • Friends and family
  • Individuals
  • Foundations
  • NGO
  • Businesses
  • National government
  • Clients

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution's plan to ensure this initiative's financial sustainability?

Each low-income school invests $30k to partner full-time with Playworks, which is about 50% of the total program cost. We have a diverse mix of foundation, corporate and individual donors that subsidizes the cost for schools. Our training department is net neutral and available to all youth service providers. Community support has continued to grow, as have our program offerings for the last 10 years in the Silicon Valley.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Playworks is the leading nonprofit in the country leveraging play to promote healthy behaviors and increase physical activity. Through 18 years of application and rigorous evaluation we have developed an inexpensive and replicable model that increases kids’ physical activity during a time in the school day that has been largely overlooked as an opportunity for promoting healthy behaviors. We are unaware of any other program that leverages the transformative power of play to improve school climate for the entire school day-- before, during and after. Play for a better school day!

Founding Story

Playworks was born out of a conversation with an elementary school principal in 1996. Jill Vialet, was visiting a school when the principal trudged out of her office with a couple of distraught- looking boys. They had gotten into a conflict on the playground which escalated out of control. Exasperated, the principal looked at Jill, “Can’t you do something for these boys? They’re in here every day!” After a moment, Jill remembered a caring adult at a playground in her town who’d helped her “get into the game." He taught everyone the game rules and showed them how to behave when playing, demonstrating good sportsmanship, teamwork and the importance of having fun. Why couldn’t this role model be recreated for kids in schools everywhere?


We have 29 experienced full-time coaches whose diversity is representative of the communities we serve. We recruit people who are able to quickly build rapport with students, and foster a safe environment where children can thrive. Program Managers are former coaches who were promoted from the coaching position having excelled in the role. Our board is a diverse group of professionals holding positions in many major Silicon Valley businesses.
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Organization Country

, CA, Campbell

Country where this project is creating social impact

, CA, Silicon Valley

What awards or honors has the project received?
Funding: How is your project financial supported?

Friends and family, Individuals, Foundations, NGOs, Businesses, National government, Customers.

Supplemental Information
On which of the following California counties does your project focus its impact? (check all that apply):

San Mateo, Santa Clara, Other.

How does your idea help cultivate empathy skills to strengthen communities and equip young people to become leaders of change?

Playworks’ mission is to improve the health and well-being of children by increasing opportunities for safe, meaningful play. We use play, a universally accessible concept, to improve the educational climate for 190,000 children at 390 low-income schools across the United States. Children use play as a way to learn how to navigate the world. Playworks gives our kids tools to ensure they have positive relationships in a supportive environment.
Playworks believes lessons learned on the playground are key for our chance at a positive future. Every recess, we create leaders by imparting essential concepts such as teamwork, conflict resolution, and fair play. Our students move through life having learned early the positive effects of empathy.


Introduction to school districts


The power of play in schools, community organizations and more!

Tell us about your partnerships

RWJF is a key supporter in Playworks' history of growth and current plan to scale its vision and program implementation nationally. The Einhorn Family Charitable Trust has been a major investor and partner in recognizing our impact on school climate and social/emotional learning skills such as empathy for kids in schools.


Playworks most significant challenge is getting education leaders to recognize empathy as an essential educational outcome. We plan to overcome this challenge by continuing to demonstrate the positive impacts in valuing, modeling and teaching empathy in more schools statewide and nationally.

Does your project use any of the following approaches to cultivate community members as empathetic and collaborative leaders?

creating a safe space, developing emotional competency, building leadership skills, group play, collective problem-solving, identifying shared values and differences, instilling courage, enabling action.

Target Age Group(s)