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Make 2014 the year your kids play

By John Bare
February 1, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
First Lady Michelle Obama is surrounded by school children doing jumping jacks during a 'Let's Move!' event, October 11, 2011.
First Lady Michelle Obama is surrounded by school children doing jumping jacks during a 'Let's Move!' event, October 11, 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Bare: New year a good time to reawaken to the value of play in kids' lives
  • He says a nonprofit organization, Playworks, is in the forefront of rethinking school recess
  • Study found that schools with new form of recess had less bullying, he says

Editor's note: John Bare is vice president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and executive-in-residence at Georgia Tech's Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship.

(CNN) -- C'mon, kids. Don't just sit there. Play. It's the first day of the New Year, so there's no better time to start.

With all the sporting events on TV this time of year, parents need to be sure kids take a break from watching others play games and do some playing themselves. Play will improve a kid's life. Jill Vialet guarantees it.

Vialet, who is emerging as America's Play Laureate with her new young-adult novel "Recess Rules" has given the world a free guide to games, from "All Tangled Up" to "Zip, Zap, Pop."

John Bare
John Bare

Best of all, no power cord is required.

When I met Vialet five years ago, she was ramping up her nonprofit organization, Playworks, to go national. She taught me that instead of treating play as the opposite of work, play carries its own intrinsic value.

Play is not an indulgent diversion from what's really important. It enhances what's most important in our lives -- relationships, school performance and even brain development.

Schools across the country are catching on. Thanks to Vialet's genius, nearly a half-million students in 23 cities are discovering the magic of playing during recess. (The foundation where I work is funding Playworks training in Georgia.)

For these schools, play is the new work.

In a nation where we're supposed to keep our shoulder to the wheel, keeping a hula hoop around our hips turns out to be just as important.

School bans balls during recess

With all the high-tech innovations and education-reform models competing for favor, the oldest of old-school notions, plain old recess, produces remarkable benefits.

Vialet's road to recess began in 1995, when a principal unloaded with tales of recess nightmares. Fights on the playground. Teachers not ready or not willing to supervise recess. Disengaged kids just waiting around on the playground. Antsy kids unable to sit still in the classroom.

So Vialet founded Playworks, to which schools could outsource recess. Vialet was taking a problem off the principal's hands, and she believed she could run recess cheaper and more effectively than schools could.

Once she got the program going, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation put serious money into expansion. The foundation also put up money for Stanford University and Mathematica Policy Research to carry out a high-stakes test. Evaluators randomly assigned some schools to try the Playworks approach. Then they compared student results at the Playworks schools to those from students at similar set of schools not using the program.

The findings require us to re-imagine recess. Instead of questioning whether schools can afford recess, Playworks began asking how schools could afford not to offer recess.

At schools using Playworks, there were fewer cases of bullying. Students felt safer at Playworks schools. While Playworks was not created as an anti-bullying program, it has emerged as a promising tool to create safe settings for student learning.

Kids in Playworks schools also spend more time in vigorous physical activity, and schools did not have to juggle their class schedule to add more P.E. In the national push to get kids moving, recess, not P.E., is looking like the answer.

All of this leads to my favorite lesson from Vialet:

"Do you know how hard it is to get kids to exercise for 60 minutes a day?" she told The New York Times. "Do you know how easy it is to get kids to play for 60 minutes a day?"

We don't have to run kids through a Marine boot camp to improve their physical fitness. All we need to is allow them to play. It's one reason the Detroit Lions football club is teaming up with Playworks. Through its Play 60 initiative, the National Football League is helping kids find ways to be active for 60 minutes every day. Kids can play their way to Play 60.

Further, Playworks students were in their seats, attentive and focused. Having burned off the extra energy during recess, the students were fidgeting less. This smoother transition to the classroom translates into more time for real instruction. Thanks to the "re-captured" time, Playworks students received an additional 20 hours of instruction during the school year.

For teachers, Playworks is the gift that keeps on giving. With Playworks staff running recess, teachers are freed up to focus on teaching. Then students show up in class ready to learn.

Play shapes how the brain is wired. In his book, "Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul", Dr. Stuart Brown describes both the social and biological benefits of play. More play is associated with the kind of brain development that helps us grasp and make sense of information.

Dr. John Ratey's work goes further, describing how regular physical activity helps aging adults keep their wits. It's smart business for parents to join their kids in play.

So skip the resolutions this year. Just play.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are soley those of John Bare.

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