Coach K from Playworks gets some teamwork going as the first grade sets up for soccer.

It was 9:30 am last Thursday and the entire first grade was out on the playground at PS 9, and they were psyched. Not one kid was out of line, faces were beaming and everyone was chanting and stomping along with their brand-new pal, Tashan Kilkenny of Playworks—known to the kids as “Coach K.” That morning, the teachers all had a special prep period, and Coach K took over, first pumping up some positive energy and then splitting the kids up into groups for different games, like soccer and parachute play. It was like a cross between a pep rally and positive-energy boot camp.

Mr. Kilkenny, who has worked as a counselor and supervisor at Oasis summer camp for the past 4 years, admits he has a bit of a reputation: “I’m the person you call when you need to get everyone excited.” That morning the classes had arrived on the playground at slightly different times. Instead of just making them line up and wait until everyone arrived, getting bored and restless not doing anything, Coach K started with songs and chants. “I let them know that I’m fun and I’m ready to go play with them,” he says.

PS 9 Playworks Coach Tashan Kilkenny with one of the campers he supervised last summer.

Last week was the kids’ first time meeting Coach K, who will be at PS 9 from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day this school year, running games at recess and working with individual classes on active games and conflict resolution. He will also start outdoor games before school, every  morning at 7:30 starting this coming Monday, October 22. He’ll create a Junior Coach program for our 4th and 5th graders, and get PS 9 involved in games with other Playworks schools in the area, such as PS 12. All of his work will reflect the central Playworks values of inclusion, respect, healthy play and healthy community.

Playworks is a national nonprofit organization that provides full-time coaches like Mr. Kilkenny to low-income schools like PS 9. Their mission: “To improve the health and well-being of children by increasing opportunities for physical activity and safe, meaningful play.” They require the school to chip in $25,500 per year toward the cost. PS 9 is paying for it mostly from funds raised by the PTO ($17k), and partly from this year’s $10k grant from the Whole Child Network (more info on that in an upcoming article).  At a Whole Child Network meeting this summer, PS 9 staff identified recess as something they wanted to improve, and so bringing Playworks on board is the first tangible change the school is seeing from being part of the Whole Child Network, a three-year process that just began this fall.

Recess Reform

Recess itself is the first order of business for Coach K. He has started by structuring the schoolyard, designating an area for every sport, “so there’s no jump ropes in the basketball area, or kids trying to jump rope and a ball comes rolling in—it creates conflict.” He’s organizing games, like 4-square, switch, relay races, jump rope and wall ball, teaching them the ones they don’t yet know. He’s teaching them how to resolve conflicts in positive ways, like playing rock-paper-scissors. And he’s making sure there’s a positive, cooperative spirit in all the games. For example, when someone gets “out,” they get a high-five from other kids. And the positive approach extends to the way he speaks to the students. Instead of telling kids “guys, get in line,” he says, he’ll say, “Hey, are you ready to have fun?!” When recess has to be indoors, instead of having all the kids in the auditorium watching movies, Mr. Kilkenny will take half of the kids into the gym and teach them some active, cooperative games.

Early Morning Play

Starting Monday, Coach K will be running an early morning workout program, open to all students but directed in part toward the students who are dropped off early and have had to just sit in the cafeteria and wait. From now on, they’ll be outside, moving and having fun. Coach K says the school hopes that this pre-dropoff exercise opportunity might also cut down on the number of students who arrive late to class. For now, the morning workout program will be open to everyone, but if it becomes really popular Coach K may split it up by classes and rotate days.

Values, Leadership Training and Community Building

Mr. Kilkenny will also start working with individual classes, teaching new games and reinforcing the values from the playground in those smaller groups, where he can work with the kids on a more personal level. He’ll hit each class every other week. Additionally, he’ll get the Junior Coach program up and running in PS 9’s 4th and 5th grades. These Junior Coaches will collect equipment, monitor games at recess for the younger kids, and learn leadership skills. By January, Coach K will have started an interscholastic team at PS 9—either volleyball or girl’s basketball (the latter for girls based on research showing that if girls don’t get involved in sports by 5th grade, they tend not to ever get involved).

Coach K has a busy year ahead of him, but he’s raring to go. “I’ve always loved working with kids, even when I was a kid,” he says. In addition to years of camp counseling, Mr. Kilkenny has worked as a tutor, and he coached junior high basketball when he was in high school. He’s a recent graduate of SUNY-Albany, majoring in English with a minor in Africana Studies. And he loves sports—Coach K played one year of college basketball and four years of high school basketball, and continues to play on recreational leagues. At Oasis summer camp, Coach K was most recently a division  leader, in charge of 80-100 kids and 10 staff members. He’s thrilled to be part of Playworks this year, and is considering a career in teaching, perhaps through the Teach for America program, though he says he may end up going to law school in the end, so that he can have more of an impact on society. “I like to leave a place better than I found it. Even if I can improve school life for one student, it’s worth it.”

To contact Coach K, email him at tkilkenny@playworks.org. He’d really like feedback and suggestions. “I’m here to do the best job I can do,” Mr. Kilkenny says. “If parents have ideas on how I can improve things for the kids, I’m definitely open to hearing them.”