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Great Scalability: Playworks’ Growth Strategy

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154 by 154 Hannah Head ShotBy Hannah Grossman

Is there a child who wouldn’t feel hurt at classmates excluding him or her from a playground game? Many US schools cannot control a chaotic atmosphere during recess or a bullying problem that leaves kids feeling unsafe. These are some of the situations that organization Playworks alleviates with its in-school programs, statistically proven to have highly effective results. Playworks, which was founded at two Oakland, CA schools in 1996, is now worth $35 million and has 23 regional offices. The organization’s mission is to enhance children’s health and well-being by increasing their opportunities for safe, respectful, and meaningful play.

Over the years, play has often been removed from education, despite the fact that there are countless proven benefits to play. Consequently, Playworks was designed to guarantee that children were given a secure environment to play, and that schools understood the significance of play for students. Playworks’ model uses recess to employ a program, which reduces bullying, increases physical activity, and promotes greater classroom productivity. Play is used to create new standards for treating others with respect. On Playworks playgrounds, where every child is included regardless of differences, children take leadership by running their own games and quickly settling disagreements. The organization’s go-to problem-solving method for kids to use is “rock-paper-scissors.”

Playworks offers schools three types of programs with varying levels of involvement. In the year-round Playworks Coach model, its most intensive program, Playworks provides schools with a recess coach who works full-time. The coaches, who help turn recess into a positive experience, work both during the school day and after school. Playworks TeamUp and Playworks Pro services are the other two offered programs designed to assist schools with their recess programs.

Since its founding, Playworks has seen enormous growth in its size and the number of people it serves. The organization possesses immense scalability and continues to undergo rapid expansion, with ambitious goals for the future. Specifically, by the year 2020, Playworks plans to reach five to ten times the number of students it currently serves and get schools and districts Powered by Playworks.

So, how will the organization scale to this level of outreach in only four years? Playworks has developed a solid growth strategy, in conjunction with the Billions Institute, that will enable it to dramatically increase the number of students and schools it reaches across the country. In an effort to reach these goals, Playworks will develop and refine its programmatic path to scale, allowing the organization to reach 3.5 million children in 7,000 elementary schools across the country by December 2020. Playworks was able to enter into a strategic partnership with the Billions Institute, an organization focused on large-scale social change that brings a proven approach to designing and implementing change efforts, through generous financial support from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, an organization that advocates for people getting along better.

playworks league smTheir process to increase Playworks’ organizational capacity took place over an extended time. The Billions Institute spent several months working directly with the Playworks national leadership team to create plans for expansion and increased impact. Together, they developed a manageable aim and subsequent drivers to meet the aim. Playworks outlined the impact that it wanted to have, and then the Billions Institute helped the organization to conceptualize how that would take place. Since partnering with the institute, Playworks has seen a significant shift in its organizational capacity, both on a national scale and a regional scale.

Now, Playworks is working internally to further flesh out the strategy and to further develop this plan with internal stakeholders. Playworks is working with its US regions directly to begin to work toward this aim.

In one of these regions, Playworks North Carolina currently serves over 18,000 students at 32 elementary schools and youth organizations. According to Kristin Hathorn, Executive Director of Playworks NC, “We at Playworks NC have developed our own regional aims that will help the national team reach their objectives. By June 30th, 2020, we hope to be in 300 elementary schools across the state, impacting 180,000 students. We will do this by continuing to expand our programmatic offerings and outreach.”

Playworks NC’s current growth strategy focuses on word-of-mouth, school-by-school expansion, which Kristen says will not get the organization to its goal. In the next two school years, Playworks NC will pilot and finalize a plan to scale programmatic and financial sustainability by creating and implementing a robust menu of services that engage North Carolina elementary schools and build their capacity to continue Playworks NC’s healthy play methodologies independently. After the two-year pilot period, Playworks NC hopes to be halfway to its goal, meaning the organization would be reaching 90,000 children in 150 elementary schools.

 “Over the years, as we have expanded to different regions across the country, we have realized that not every school needs the same amount of recess intervention,” Kristin says. “Therefore, over the last couple of years, we have been working on expanding our programmatic opportunities in an effort to reach more schools. In North Carolina, we have our Playworks Coach program, our most intensive intervention, at low-income elementary schools, because we have found them to need the most assistance.”

Any elementary school that has a Playworks Coach program has at least 50 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch. Of Playworks NC’s 10 schools in Durham Public Schools, 6 of them have 100 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch. Playworks NC has found this population to need extensive intervention because of the amount of disciplinary incidents it sees on a daily basis. The organization has also seen that these schools have a major problem with bullying, causing their students to feel unsafe at school.

“We hope to work with schools that have the greatest need,” Kristin says. “These kids deserve an opportunity for safe and healthy play, and to just be kids.”

Another aspect of Playworks’ growth strategy focuses on its development of robust online resources. At this point in time, the organization doesn’t know exactly what that will look like, but it is excited at the prospect of reaching more people through digital services.

“Like any nonprofit, we have faced obstacles along the way, particularly when it comes to funding,” Kristin says. “But at Playworks NC, we have a very unique way of operating, which has been very helpful for us as we navigate the challenges. Looking at funding in particular, the organization operates just like a business, and we often have to reevaluate our cost structures to ensure we are operating at the most efficient level and maximizing our investors’ financial support. At the end of the day, we focus on our mission and the children we serve, and everything else can be worked out.” She notes a feature that makes Playworks unique among other organizations. “Playworks has 20 years of programmatic data, and not a lot of nonprofits can say that.”

playworks pic smKristin offers another piece of helpful advice when it comes to running an organization.

“One of the biggest things I have learned while at Playworks,” she reflects, “is the importance of stepping back and having fun. So often we get so focused on the day-to-day that we don’t leave time for ourselves to have fun. And just like the kids we serve, we need to take time to get out and play. The cognitive benefits of play for adults- and children- are immense. So I would tell everyone to take some time every day to PLAY!”

In sum, Playworks used careful strategy when developing its plan to reach five to ten times more students by 2020. It advanced and refined its programmatic path to scale by developing a manageable aim and subsequent drivers to meet that aim. First, Playworks outlined the impact that it wanted to have, and then the Billions Institute helped the organization to conceptualize how that would take place. Now, the organization is working internally to further flush out the strategy and to further develop this plan with internal stakeholders. And Playworks is working with its US regions directly to begin to work toward this aim.

We also got a closer look at how, in one of the regional areas, Playworks NC is piloting and finalizing a plan to scale programmatic and financial sustainability. It plans to achieve this by creating and implementing a robust menu of services that engage North Carolina elementary schools and build their capacity to continue Playworks NC’s healthy play methodologies independently. The organization realizes that not every school needs the same amount of recess intervention, so, in North Carolina, the most intensive intervention program is implemented at low-income elementary schools, which Playworks NC has found to need the most assistance.

Certainly, Playworks’s scalability is helping the organization to increase its impact in creating a more peaceful, cooperative, and accepting generation of young people, benefitting not only youth, but society as a whole.

“At a Playworks school it becomes un-cool to exclude or ridicule any child for any reason at any time,” Kristin says. “Every child is included in play, regardless of athletic ability, academic skills, or economic background.” This type of environment allows children to be more relaxed and stress-free at recess and in the classroom. Perhaps it won’t be quite so common in the future, to see a child’s classmates excluding her or him from a playground game.


Hannah R Grossman is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English with Creative Writing Emphasis at NC State University. She contributes to the Philanthropy Journal’s US and NC News.

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