A study from Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University recently found that Playworks programs significantly reduce bullying behavior in schools. It’s a pleasant surprise because Playworks doesn’t have a specific anti-bullying curriculum. We don’t advertise ourselves as an anti-bully program, and we really don’t focus our program on addressing ‘bullies’. So what’s going on? Why does our program achieve those results? Below is my attempt to figure that out based on my own personal experience with bullying and with Playworks.
I had a single fight in grade school. A kid named Mike (not his real name) came at me after I tackled him a little too hard in a game of two hand touch football. We pushed each other a couple of times and then we were on the ground, arms wrapped around each other, screaming curses. The playground supervisor rushed over and pulled us apart. It was over in less than a minute, and neither one of us got hurt.
I’ve tended to think about this story as an isolated incident, one that left me feeling angry and slightly humiliated to be sure, but not bullying per se. Despite that, the incident, which I refer to in my mind as “the fight” still weighs heavily on me. I like to think of myself as a very calm, patient person, but there are moments when the façade breaks down and I experience rage. It only happens when I’m alone. I think about a problem in my life, some challenge I have to overcome.
That sounds so melodramatic. Really, they’re small things, the dishes that have to be unloaded from the dishwasher, the bills that need to be paid, the floor that needs vacuuming… All of the little things in my life that I have to take care of, but that are never done. They’re tasks a person cannot truly accomplish, but they demand my attention and I get a flash of anger, a flash of that moment of grass and dirt and the smell of sweat on Mike’s jersey.
Every day at recess I played two hand touch football, and every day Mike and Derrick were captains, and every day they picked the same kids in roughly the same order. We believed this order was based on skill with the best wide receivers being picked first, the best running backs next, and then the kids who were pretty athletic followed by those that we viewed as bad players.
Every single day we went through the picking of the teams like a ritual. Every day we were put in our places. I wasn’t ever picked last (I’m pretty tall and reasonably athletic. I can catch a football.), but I wasn’t ever picked first either.
In truth, the picking of teams wasn’t about skill level. It was about power. Mike and Derrick didn’t get to pick every day because they were the all-time quarterbacks. That’s what they told us, but we all knew it was because they were the ‘popular kids’, and the popular kids make up the rules as they go.
They picked their friends first, and so when I got picked in the middle, I knew what it meant. Sure, I could play football with them because you need ten or twelve guys to play, but I wasn’t their friend. Outside of football, we didn’t hang out. They didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to them. It played out like that in the game too. Mike would drop back into the shotgun, hike the ball himself and then throw it to one of his friends, even if they were double covered and I was wide open. I got the ball sometimes, and I even scored my fair share of touchdowns, but it didn’t matter. No one ever thought of me in terms of a wide receiver. We were labeled by our social standing.
On the day of “the fight,” I was on Derrick’s team. We were winning by one touchdown with only five minutes to go until the bell. Mike dropped back, hiked the ball and we started counting down the 5 seconds we had to wait before we rushed him. He faked a pass, ran to his left, faked another pass and then started running.
The quarterback sneak was one of the most popular moves in recess football. It allowed the quarterback/captain to show off his skills without having to share any of the glory with his fellow teammates. Mike breezed by our first defender and started sprinting up the side of the field. I was the closest to him, and I gave chase.
Just before he reached the end zone, I dove and got him with both hands flat on his back. We both went down and rolled in the grass and in an instant, he was up again stomping towards me with the awkward gait of an irate chimpanzee. I scrambled to my feet and turned to face him. He pushed me in the chest and then stepped forward to put his face in my face. I stood my ground.
“Why’d you push me?” he yelled.
“I didn’t push you. I tackled you. You’re down.”
“It doesn’t count,” he said. “You pushed me so it’s a touchdown.”
“No,” I said my voice rising, “I got you right before you crossed the line. You’re down.”
“Pushing doesn’t count,” he said. He started to turn away, but I was the one who was irate now. I pushed him in the chest and he took a couple of steps back. For a moment there was surprise painted all over his face, and then he rushed me and we were on the ground.
Looking back on it, I realize that the football game I participated in was a bullying institution. It operated by setting up and then reinforcing social hierarchies that were then played out in the classroom. There are a number of points at which “the fight” could have been avoided, but without an engaged adult on the playground, incidents like the one I was a part of are not just common, but inevitable. I don’t mean to suggest that every school that doesn’t have Playworks at its recess is bad, but without adult guidance from a playground aid, a teacher, an administrator, or even a volunteer parent, kids can have a hard time sorting out their baggage in a healthy way.
Here are the places a Playworks program would have intervened:
- We would likely have been playing flag football instead of two hand touch.
- We would not have been using captains to pick teams so the social hierarchy would not have been reinforced.
- A Playworks coach would not be okay with one person being all-time anything.
- An argument over whether something was a touchdown or not would get solved with roshambo (rock paper scissors).
- We would all be learning core values like inclusion, healthy play, and respect in our class game times which the coach would help reinforce at recess.
- Most importantly, there would be an engaged adult on the playground who knows how every kid out there is feeling that day, and he or she would intervene before things got out of control.
Here’s the question: What is it we do that reduces bullying?
Everything we do reduces bullying because we change the dynamics of recess. We replace the routines of established social hierarchy with healthier routines. The dailiness of our program means that our students are constantly being lifted up rather than beaten down. Bullying is systematic, constant, over and over again, and I think that Playworks is effective at combating something like that because we are also daily. We’re systematic. We’re constant. We’re over and over again. Most programs that address bullying focus on kids labeled as bullies and how to get them to change their behavior, but none of those programs has a presence on the playground like we do. It sounds simple and straightforward, but I really think it’s the answer.