Jill Vialet's Learning Story


Playworks started going national about 6 years ago, and our first expansion city was Baltimore. On our first exploratory visit, we took a few staff including one of our coaches, Lamarr. In his late twenties the time, Lamarr is a big African American guy ‘ about 6’3’ and 240 pounds. He has a commanding presence and the kids absolutely adore him. Lamarr and I went out to visit a Baltimore elementary school to see if the there might be interest in actually running our program in the Baltimore schools. I asked Lamarr if he wanted to describe the program, since he had actually been out in the school doing it for the past couple of years. Lamarr deferred, he just wanted to listen to me pitch ‘ he was going to be mum and just soak it all in. So the Principal comes out and escorts us into his office ‘ a typical principal office with the big desk and big chair on one side and the little chairs on the other side. Lamarr looked silly – this big guy in this little chair – but he sat right down, with a determined look of silence on his face. I launched into the description of what we do ‘ I described how we have one person at every school full time who is out for all the recesses and works with the classroom teachers to teach games through classroom gametime. I explained our Junior Coach model, with kids assuming ever more responsibility for the quality of play on the school yard, our afterschool program and our interscholastic girls basketball and co-ed volleyball leagues. I explained how it costs us about $55,000 per school to run and that the schools pay $23,500 to have the program. The Principal listened intently throughout, nodding and looking interested, but when I finished, he shook his head and said that he thought it sounded like a great program, but that it would never work at his school. I asked if it was because of the cost, but he explained that no, it was because they didn’t have recess at his school. Lamarr has been absolutely silent until this point. I think the Principal had basically forgotten he was even there. But when the principal said that the kids didn’t have recess, Lamarr leaned forward and asked, ‘But what about when the kids finish lunch and they go outside to run around?’ The principal looked a little confused, and replied, ‘No, they stay in the cafeteria. We don’t have recess.’ You could just tell that this didn’t compute for Lamarr, so he tried again. ‘But what about when the teachers take the kids out for a break?’ The Principal looked at me and then back at Lamarr, ‘No, they don’t do that, we don’t have recess. We haven’t had recess in five years. We tried it, but our kids just don’t know how to play.’ And then the wildest thing happened. Lamarr dug in. ‘Could I take your kids out for recess?’ The Principal shook his head, no, no, no way, couldn’t happen. But Lamarr was insistent. ‘No, really, just for 10 minutes today at lunch. We can wait. I can show you.’ And despite the odds, about an hour later I found myself walking into the cafeteria with Lamarr and the principal. Now the cafeteria at this school wasn’t huge and there were probably 140 4th and 5th graders literally bouncing off the walls. There were two lunch ladies, in full lunch lady garb ‘one standing by either door ‘ and they looked completely harried and grumpy. Lamarr strides to the middle of the cafeteria amidst this insane din and he claps rhythmically. Nothing much happens initially, though a few kids look at him and the lunch ladies are staring and looking mildly concerned. He does it again and a couple of kids repeat the rhythm. He does it a third time, and it’s like magic, all the kids respond in kind and there is complete quiet in the cafeteria. Lamarr has this big booming voice and he says ‘Hi. My name is Coach Lamarr.’ He explains that he is visiting from California (clearly code in the kids’ minds that he is certifiably insane) and that he is here to run 10 minutes of recess (wild applause). He explains that he needs the kids to show their teachers and principals that they can cooperate. He gives them three clear directions ‘ finish up their lunches, clean up their spots and line up by class in a quiet and organized way ‘ and agrees to meet them out on the yard. The kids jump to and we are out on the yard 4 minutes later. Out on the yard Lamarr circles the kids up and has them number off by threes. He explains that we are going to break into three groups with the ones playing a game of band aid tag with him, the twos playing a game of rock star with me and the threes on the structure with their teachers. The ten minutes fly by and Lamarr does the signaling clap once again. This time, the kids respond immediately. He asks the kids to circle up and we go around and everyone says one word that describes their feeling about recess. The words are ‘Fun!’ ‘Awesome!’ and in blatant violation of the ‘one word’ rule ‘ ‘When are you coming back?’ Lamarr explains that Playworks is looking to open next year and that he hopes he can come visit next year. He explains that to make that happen he needs the kids to line back up by their classes and return to class in an orderly way ‘ which they do. As the kids filed back to class the Principal came up to me and said ‘OK, we need to talk.’ But my favorite part was when I looked up to see the two lunch ladies literally running across the blacktop, to envelope Lamarr in a giant hug of thanks.