Conversation: Sports4Kids Founder Jill Vialet Discusses a New Brand of Play in Schools

Sports4Kids

While there is a national concern about the apparent decline in the physical fitness of our youth, there is one group that is bringing a new way to play to schools across the country. Sports4Kids, based in Oakland, Calif., is rethinking school recess and taking its new brand play to low-income public schools. Sports4Kids has programs in seven cities now, but that number will grow to 27 by the 2011-12 school year.

To say this is just about “play” might be an understatement. For one, the Sports4Kids brand of play teaches kids self-regulation, which is unquestionably a life-long lesson. Also, Sports4Kids really gets into the trenches with its partner schools. From creating structured, safe and inclusive environments, to working to reintroduce physical activity into the school curriculum, and to developing after-school physical activity and academic enhancement programs, Sports4Kids is having a major impact on kids. It’s no wonder they’re expanding.

Progress Avenue recently chatted with Jill Vialet, the founder and president of Sports4Kids:

Progress Avenue: Your organization offers a “brand of play.” What do you mean when you say “brand”?

Jill Vialet: We talk about our unique brand of play, which is all about kids taking responsibility and understanding their role in fun, inclusive games. We’re not opposed to competition. We do a lot of competitive games, but we try and do it in a way that takes some of the intensity out of being competitive. We also do a lot of non-competitive games and we do everything in between.

But our brand of play is really about kid-driven, kid-owned play. It’s about reclaiming recess and kids’ responsibility when it comes to being in school and how education can really be energized if you infuse play into it.

PA: Sports4Kids is all about play. You would think this wouldn’t be an issue for kids. But why has physical activitiy become so important for our youth?

Vialet: I think kids are intrinsically motivated to play. It’s funny, I’ll be at various conferences and they’ll say, ‘Oh it’s so hard to get kids to be physically active for 60 minutes.’ And I always counter that it’s so easy to get kids to play for 60 minutes. But I think really what’s going on is because of the concerns – both real and perceived – about safety, running around unsupervised after school and during non-school hours. Kids aren’t outside running around as much, certainly not as much as they were when we were kids.

Then, during the school day, there are huge pressures on instructional minutes and budget cuts. That might not be good for the physical education teachers. I think the concerns around the results of standardized tests, and the fact that kids come to school without as many skills to play and to be inclusive. There are all these disincentives for teachers to take kids out for recess. What you see is just a decreasing amount of time that’s available for kids to be physically active.

Sports4Kids

PA: There’s a national conversation about the physical fitness of our youth. Are there any statistics that absolutely startle you and motivate you even more in what you’re doing?

Vialet: At this point I’m sort of beaten down by the stats that are so horrifying. And there are some that are way out there, and I wonder if they’re as accurate. I don’t think I can get any more motivated than I am right now. I’m so hell-bent for this vision that one day every kid in America gets to play every day. It just makes so much sense to me.

I’m motivated by the physical activity. But I’m equally as motivated by the social and emotional and cognitive development that I am convinced is tied to kids being physically active and getting to play.

PA: Sports4Kids has different chapters across the country. What are these chapters doing in their respective communities, and how do their individual efforts help your national program?

Vialet: About three years ago we launched a strategic planning process. We wanted to get to this vision that one day every child in American will get to play every day. We asked, ‘What’s the best way to get there?’ So we came up with a three-step plan.

The first step was to expand and open offices in 27 cities across the country. We’re currently in seven cities, eight cities if you count both San Francisco and Oakland. Then we’re adding four cities in the coming year. We’re launching Seattle, Portland, L.A. and Newark. Then we’ll add six cities in ’10-11 and then ten more cities in ’11-12. That’ll bring us to 27 cities. We did our research and that was the number that major league sports has determined. If you look at Major League Baseball, and the NBA and NFL and hockey, 27 seems to be the tipping point for really owning a share of the national mind space. So the first step is to build this flagship program that is operating nationally and providing the gold standard of play during the school day.

The second step is to take the training developed by our own staff and to make that available to schools and to people working in schools to make sure that our brand of play is available, even at schools where there isn’t necessarily the same concentration of low-income kids, or at schools in rural communities.

The third step is to work with grown-ups across the country who really care about play and see the value in making sure that every kid gets to play. We really want to create a movement that advocates for the importance of play.

PA: You have two events coming up. Later this month you have a couple of star athletes helping with your Get in the Game event. What’s this event about?

Vialet: Get in the Game is on March 14th with Darren McFadden and Natalie Coughlin. It’s really a celebration of play in our communities. And amongst grown-ups we’re giving out three awards.

The MVP is our Most Valuable Principal, and it goes to one of our principles who we just feel has gone above and beyond. Being a principal is just an intense job, and it is so absolutely critical to the success of a school. When you come across a principal who values play and who incorporates play in how they interact with their staff and with the families that they serve and the kids, it is just a thing of beauty. So we’re really excited to honor our principal.

We have a Rookie of the Year award. The young man who’s won it this year has just been the best of himself and has gone above and beyond the call in working with the schools to make it really exceptional. I can’t announce the winner, but this young man is in New Orleans. The program in New Orleans is a super challenging environment to work in. This fall when the hurricanes came again in the wake of Katrina. We were just dealing with kids who were kindergartners the first time when Katrina came around and they were just so freaked out. But last fall, the way this young man just stepped up and worked with kids and their families and really reassured them that they were in a community that was going to care for them and use play to do that. It’s just completely inspiring.

Then the third award is the Most Playful CEO. We have this totally great open process for CEOs who really are emblematic of play at work in a way that is respectful and inclusive and increases productivity. We got great nominees from huge multi-national companies to local construction firms. We have a CEO that has won this year who is just so playful and fun and running this successful business and play is absolutely integral to how he’s achieving what he’s achieving. It’s really cool.

We’re excited. These are hard times, and it’s nice to have a chance to celebrate. I just get this strong sense that though times are hard right now, there’s a lot of commitment to doing the right thing and renewing the social contract. I am constantly impressed by how people are maintaining their sense of humor and just keeping their chins up and really not losing their commitment to the community.

Sports4Kids

PA: Another event you have coming up in May is the Play On Conference to help train leaders. What are you hoping your attendees will take from this event?

Vialet: We are trying to get folks really solid tools and the network of connections to help run play in their respective communities. We’re bringing in funders who work with play. We’re bringing in folks who are doing policy work around promoting play, and people who have worked with their school boards, and folks who are doing federal legislation to promote play.

There will be lots and lots and lots of just playing games and reminding people about best practices on how you involve lots of different kids with different skill levels and abilities. We have a huge bag of tricks on how you make play accessible and good management techniques – every thing from picking teams to handling transitions. Then we’ll also have some breakout sessions for folks who are coming from different schools in different parts of the country. We’ll be creating networks where they can have a shared practice to bring some ideas back to their respective schools and make it happen.

In general, our hope is to really inspire folks to go back and make play an even bigger part of the work they’re doing, and also to give them the tools they need to really make it happen and convince other people to take part too.

PA: Sports4Kids is just that, for kids. Children can easily tug at the heart strings. How do people get involved?

Vialet: We’re launching a big engagement push called Play Nation. We are really trying to, as an organization, get better at incorporating volunteers. There are a huge number of ways for people to get involved. In the different local offices, we have advisory councils. We need folks to think about what schools we should be in and helping us find great staff, and promoting us and getting local corporations involved. We run a corporate kickball tournament every spring in all our cities. If people just want to get their co-workers out to have a team and come play with us, that’s a great way to get involved. We have volunteers who help in after-school programs and with our various leagues. We’re also looking for folks to help us make the leagues run well. And we’re just trying to get people excited about what we’re doing and building the movement.

For more information on Sports4Kids, please visit www.sports4kids.org.