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‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ beats bullying on this school playground

To hear Sharon Litwin interview Playworks director Dana Greenup on WWNO public radio, click here.

Edgar P. Harney Spirit of ExcellenceAcademy is an elementary and middle school in the heart of Central City. It’s the school with the chain link fence that faces Claiborne Avenue, a school many pass with hardly a glance on the way to the Superdome.

It’s also a school with a metal detector at its Willow Street entrance, two comfy purple armchairs in the lobby, cheerful handmade posters on the wall, and a crew of Playworks counselors whose only job is to organize recess.

A group of students plays duck duck goose outside of Playworks.

A group of students plays duck duck goose with Playworks coach Brittany Bolds (left) and kindergarten teacher Sierra McKinney (right). Photo by Thomas Walsh.

At first blush, it might seem odd to hire a special staff trained to plan daily recess activities on a school playground. But any number of teachers and principals in the several schools served citywide by Playworks, a national not-for-profit, admit they are more than happy they no longer have that responsibility.

Sierra McKinney is a kindergarten teacher at Harney. She oversees a class of 18 tiny, noisy, wonderful miniature people. She loves her job, and over time, she has participated in her fair share of recess duties. “Although I enjoyed that,” she says “I think it takes a special person to interact with children in a playful manner day in and day out.”

Dana Greenup, Program Director for Playworks in New Orleans, says her staff of trained counselors is welcomed by teachers who, while accomplished in their classrooms, may not have the basketball or touch footballs skills, or any other playground game skills for that matter. While the agreement with Playworks is that a teacher shall also be on the playground during recess, it’s up to that teacher to decide if he or she just wants to observe, or join in the games with their students.

Teachers are not the only happy group on the playground in the Playworks-associated schools; the others are the junior counselors. These are young students who have met academic and behavior standards and are allowed to assist Playworks coaches with recess activities. They are encouraged to be leaders.

DeJohn, a junior counselor at Plyaworks.

11-year old DeJohn Vanison, a Junior Counselor at Plyaworks. Photo by Thomas Walsh. 

Eleven-year-old Dejohn Vanison is a junior counselor at Harney. One of eight children in his family, he says he really likes helping with the littlest of the students, and it’s obvious that the kindergarteners do look up to him.

So if one had to add up the benefits of an outside contracted group coming into a school to run recess, what might they be? Certainly, the games aspect is one that is easily understood. But Dana Greenup says there are many others — among them, teaching children to play in an organized game environment, something that is new for many children in her associated schools.

“Some are coming into an environment where they have to learn how to share, how to follow rules,” she explains. “You can tell which of the children have had some kind of exposure to those things. I would say the majority haven’t.

“So to have Playworks, which is structured play that teaches you the value of sharing and caring about the person next to you; teaches you how to soft touch and not hurt an individual, that is wonderful. A lot of our children have no idea what it is to softly touch another person without hurting them.”

Both teachers and principals, she says, have told her that those skills, learned on the playground, are easily transitioned into the classroom; that there are fewer fights during recess; that what she calls “the wiggles” are exercised out during energetic and enjoyable game times.  Kid battles are often settled with the injured parties playing “rock, paper, scissors” instead of punching each other out.  All of those things, Dana says, make “for a controllable and friendly environment for students and teachers alike.”

Fore more information on Playworks, click on


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