For many, the playground provides fond childhood memories.
Games of tag at recess, playing on the monkey bars, swinging so high it seemed we could touch the clouds.
These memories may be filled with laughter, fun, and imagination, but we also learned valuable life lessons. For better or worse, how we interact with our peers can be learned through play.
Cooperation, sharing, creativity, team building, taking turns, communication, and conflict resolution can all be developed on the playground.
It is an insight that Dr. Marc Atkins, research psychologist, head of the Center for Community-Based Children’s Mental Health Research and Policy (the Center), and director of IJR had more than two decades ago when confronted with a violent playground in Philadelphia. He was asked by the principal of a school he was working with if he could address the aggression, bullying, and fighting that took place on the playground at recess.
And, to do it using only the resources that existed at the school, without adding or introducing any services the school couldn’t sustain on their own.
He created a program that recruited the older students to mentor and monitor the younger ones. Overall aggression and negative behavior decreased. It was a profound lesson for Atkins that shaped his career and left its fingerprints on one of the Center’s core mental health models.
“It struck me that the most important thing that we can do in mental health, especially when it comes to children, is to support them in the natural environments where they live, learn, and play. I have been very interested, almost from the start of my career in the alternatives to clinics, alternatives to hospitals. Those are not natural places for kids. Those are unnatural places for kids. Schools, homes, playgrounds, those are natural places for kids.”
Leaders @ Play, a Chicago-based partnership between the Center and the Chicago Park District (CPD) pair middle school youth from critically under served communities characterized by violence, dissolving social networks, struggling schools, and concentrated urban poverty with teens ages 13-15 to provide mentoring and leadership. Initially designed and developed in 2012 – 2013 at the Center by Dr. Stacy Frazier the program pilot got results.
Teens that were part of a formal leadership program at CPD called Youth Program Quality Initiative, learned effective communication, emotion regulation, and problem solving skills, in addition to professional skills and knowledge to initiate stable, healthy, and productive career trajectories. Empowered to be positive role models, leaders, and peer educators these teens were paired with younger students vulnerable to academic failure, risky behaviors, and gang recruitment. The pilot program in 3 parks with 46 low-income, African-American youth showed significant social skill improvements and reduced behavior problems.
In Chicago, this program has recently been expanded to include 5 sites in Chicago for nearly 300 kids, while Fraizer is currently overseeing citywide implementation of a similar park-program throughout the city of Miami.
- Learn more how the Center leverages natural settings for mental health opportunities.
- Check out “Building Resilience After School for Early Adolescents in Urban Poverty: Open Trial of Leaders @ Play.”
- Read about future directions for this kind of public health approach to mental health.