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By Meghan Moravcik Walbert

On her first day on the job, Kelsey Rendelman walked out to the playground at Griffith Elementary School and began setting up cones for a game with the students.

Kelsey, a coach with Playworks Arizona, was starting a new program in the Phoenix school in an effort to reduce the aggression and bullying that was running rampant among students. She wanted to teach them positive life skills, such as how to get along well with others and work effectively as a team.

On that first day, after she’d placed the last cone, she turned back around to survey the field. Every single cone had been kicked over.

“Recess can be a very chaotic time for many kids,” Kelsey said. “It can be lawless out there if there’s nothing set up for them to play, or no structure.”

Before Kelsey and Playworks arrived, the school struggled with discipline problems, particularly during recess.

“Kids were getting into fist-fights about games,” Kelsey said. “They didn’t have any tools for problem-solving.”

But in the year she has been there, she has helped the school reduce suspensions by 62 percent and bullying by 50 percent.

Kelsey’s program is one of 21 programs across the state in six different school districts, serving more than 15,500 students. Coaches like Kelsey go into low-income, Title 1 schools and transform recess into a positive, inclusive experience.

Every day, Kelsey works with three or four different classes in small groups on the playground. She teaches them how to play a handful of different games, as well as how to solve disputes safely and fairly, such as by using the rock-paper-scissors method.

The games are structured so there is always a way for kids to enter the game – perhaps by joining the end of a line – without having to ask or be invited in. When players are tagged out, they receive high-fives and words of encouragement from their classmates – something that Kelsey says is even seeping into the school’s classrooms.

“I received an e-mail from third grade teacher the other day,” Kelsey said. “She had given her class a spelling test, and the kids graded one another’s tests, and someone had written ‘Good job, nice try!’ on another student’s paper. That’s what we teach them to say on the playground.”

Kelsey sees how the Playworks program is making a difference in her school in lots of little ways like that, each and every day. Kids write to her that her program makes them want to come to school. She watches former troublemakers transform into positive role models.

But perhaps the most telling sign of success for her has been those cones.

“Not a single cone gets kicked over now,” Kelsey said. “And if one gets knocked over, someone picks it up right away.”

Join Kelsey and the Playworks team at this year’s Run the Runway 10K run and 5K run/walk being held Saturday, April 4 at the Scottsdale Airport. The family-friendly event features a 1-Mile Kids’ Mascot Dash and post-race festival. Proceeds benefit Playworks Arizona and will help the organization expand its programs into even more Arizona schools. For more information on the event or to register, visit RunTheRunwayAZ.com.

Run The Runway Gallery on AZ Central

More on the Run The Runway event by the Scottsdale Independent

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