May 10, 2010 -- In the orderly halls of Stephens Elementary in Little Rock, Ark., principal Sharon Brooks steers a tight ship: Students dressed in khaki-and-blue uniforms quietly weave between classrooms in single file.
But every day at 12:30 p.m., when recess rolls around, all of that well-defined order goes out the window.
"When they hit the playground, their behavior just goes in reverse, and we have some trouble controlling things out there," said Brooks.
For many of its 460 students, Stephens Elementary is a sanctuary -- an oasis of calm in the middle of Little Rock's gang-ridden 12th Street neighborhood.
"It can sometimes get real bad over here," said Alex Hamilton, a security officer at the school. "I'd say that 90 percent of our kids have been exposed to some sort of violence."
But the school's recess discipline problems are hardly unique. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this year, 89 percent of discipline-related incidents at schools happen either during lunch or recess.
Now, Stephens Elementary is getting a major "recess rehab." Charles Cooper, who's known as "Coach Coop," is a recess coach with Playworks, a nonprofit that specializes in bringing order to the playground by teaching kids how to play.
Cooper came to Stephens for a weeklong trial run to convince staff and students that when push comes to shove, healthy, productive play is still possible.
"We'll break it in there little by little," Cooper said. "The first two days you're building rapport with the staff and the students. Not everybody is onboard immediately, some people have to see it first."
Before Rehab: The Problem at Stephens
Hamilton, the school security officer, is responsible for reining in chaos and breaking up any fights on the blacktop.
"It could quickly escalate to kids getting upset with each other," said Hamilton. "And it could go bad real quick. Sometimes they will bring the problems at home to school. It's just part of the environment."
A bad recess follows kids back into the classroom, said teacher Steven Helmick.
"Because something has happened outside that has caused them to be frustrated the rest of the day... [I am] not getting anything else out of them," Helmick said. "They're done."
In the last year alone, there were 108 suspensions at Stephens -- sometimes as many as seven a week -- and almost all of them stem from playground fights.
The Playworks Approach to Recess
Schools from Los Angeles to Boston pay $23,000 a year to contract out recess to Playworks. The idea behind it all is that recess can have a positive impact on academic achievement.
"We're not going to be satisfied until all 60,000 public elementary schools have somebody who really cares and is making sure that kids are playing every day," said Jill Vialet, who started Playworks 14 years ago in Oakland, Calif.
Vialet describes her mission as restoring "the culture of play," primarily at low-income schools.
"When I was kid growing up, we played every day, after school, and all summer long, unsupervised," said Vialet. "So when we came to school and went outside to recess, we knew how to pick teams, we knew how to self-handicap to keep the game going. And kids don't bring those skills with them to recess anymore, in any socio-economic class."
For kids in neighborhoods like 12th Street, the world is sometimes just not safe.
"I think that most boys and girls don't have a lot of opportunities to play games at home or after school, when they leave here," Brooks said. "Many of them think when there is a problem you hit, you fight, you push, you defend yourself."
Recess Rehab: Respect the Game
"There's ... not a lot of organization," he observed. "Not a lot of good positive social interaction going on."
To help nurture that interaction, Cooper split the playground into different play spaces. Class by class, he introduced simple games for the kids to choose from, from 10-second tag to ultimate football to hula-hooping.
A set of basic rules applies to all activities: Respect the game, play fairly and respect your teammates. To quickly settle differences, students are taught the old-school hand game of rock, paper, scissors.
While many educators support Playworks' initiatives, some experts are skeptical.
Recess Rehab: Coach as a Crutch?
"We want children to be able to have a time during the day where they can take a complete break from rules, where they can make up their own games and where they can think for themselves," said Robyn Silverman, a childhood and teen development expert. "When you have a school that is thinking about using a recess coach, my hope is that they use that coach wisely, but don't use that coach as a crutch."
Vialet insists coaching wisely is exactly what Playworks is doing.
"Our capacity is to build a structure with an eye toward the kids ultimately taking responsibility," she said. "I think that's the best hope we've got towards building an environment where kids can be at school and to use their imaginations."
One Week Later: Kids' Transformations, Results
Teachers at Stephens said a fifth-grader who goes by the name Rico, a good student, had posed one of the biggest challenges for teachers on the playground. Now Rico was leading the games.
"He is one of the big men on campus," Cooper said. "For him to realize that he could use positive energy and still get that same respect, I'm sure is just a relief for him and you could see his eyes just glow."
Rico himself offered a rave review.
"Coach Coop makes everything organized now," Rico said. "When I wake up, I'm thinking, I don't want to go to school, but I'm thinking Coach Coop is at school. Since Coach Coop came and started everything, nobody has gotten into trouble. We all respect him very much."
During Cooper's week-long stint at Stephens, there were no suspensions on the playground and kids genuinely seemed engaged.
"We're like WD-40 for enhancing school climate," said Vialet. "We come in, we make things go a little easier, and it makes it that much easier for teachers to be really good at their jobs."
"I have to hold back my tears with that young man," Cooper said of Rico. "You know, I witness young kids get devoured by these streets every day."
Cooper said the most difficult part of his job is saying goodbye.
"The toughest part of my job by far is coming in here and building relationships, real, genuine relationships with these kids, and then having to disappear," he said. "But the beautiful thing is we're leaving all these tools and games and experiences that they can hold onto and just keep evolving."
At the end of the day, there are no guarantees. But if recess can be the cure for what ails many of our schools, it just may be a testament to the power of play.