Students at four Massachusetts elementary schools discover that the best part of recess is the lessons learned.
With the blare of a whistle, a few hand gestures, and a smile, Coach DC captures the attention of her students. Despite the allure of basketballs, a play-ground, a vast area of blacktop, and an open field, they listen with eagerness for her directions. For the students of Mary E. Baker Elementary School in Brockton, Massachusetts, the 20-minute recess period is not only a chance to get up and move around, it’s an opportunity to learn critical lessons about physical and emotional health, thanks to Jessica Duarte-Cherrie, affectionately referred to as Coach DC.
The 27-year-old native of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood is an on-site coach from Playworks, a nationwide nonprofit aimed at improving the well-being of children through physical activity and safe, meaningful play. The coaches engage students at recess and in after-school groups with fun games that encourage cooperation, problem-solving, and positive conflict resolution. Duarte-Cherrie currently works with more than 2,000 students in four Massachusetts schools (Brookfield, Joseph H. Downey, Louis F. Angelo, and Mary E. Baker elementary schools).
“Kids are our future, and they need more young, positive role models– Especially ones who can relate to them,” she says.
“Our games teach physical, social, and emotional skills,” explains Duarte-Cherrie, a former high school basketball standout. “For example, when kids get into a fight I have them play Rock, Paper, Scissors, Show—not Shoot; we changed it to not glorify violence—so kids learn to work through their feelings. We’re trying to get kids to play together without fighting, swearing, and bullying each other.”
The Playworks approach emphasizes empowering older children to take the lead in modeling a positive culture for younger children. It cultivates the kids’ innate leadership and gives them easy ways to take ever-increasing responsibility for the quality of play and for each other. Duarte-Cherrie, with recommendations from the teachers, designates a few fifth-graders to be “junior coaches,” who help her set up activities, teach new games, and even assist with simple tasks like showing the first-graders how to form a proper line.
“Working with Coach DC is one of the best decisions in fifth grade that I’ve made,” says one of Duarte-Cherrie’s junior coaches, 11-year-old Jordan. “It’s fun working with some of my friends and watching the other students progress.”
“I love helping Coach DC out,” says another junior coach, 10-year-old Adylen. “If I could do it all day, every day, I would. I want her to be my sister.”
If Duarte-Cherrie were paid by the number of hugs and high-fives she receives in just one afternoon of recess sessions, she would be set for life. Her cheerful energy and charisma seem to encourage the students to swarm around her at all times. The affection is mutual, as any observer can plainly see. “They put a smile on my face every time I see them,” she says.
While the kids enjoy the games, they have a serious purpose for Duarte-Cherrie. “Kids are our future, and they need more young, positive role models—especially ones who can relate to them,” she says. “I enjoy being active with them and teaching them sports and team-building activities, but I also try to teach them skills that will help them be successful in life. I may not be able to change them, but I plan on being that role model that makes them want to do and be their best.”
Find out how to bring the Playworks program to your school at playworks.org.