Improving Educational Outcomes Through Play and Partnerships

October 18, 2023

In today's changing education landscape, achieving better educational outcomes requires a comprehensive approach beyond traditional methods. Educators, policymakers, and organizations focusing on the health and well-being of children and families are searching for new and creative ways to enhance the learning journey.

The Importance of Play in Education

Education encompasses more than just academic instruction. To truly nurture and develop students, addressing their social, emotional, and physical well-being is essential. Play is vital to healthy development, helping prepare kids to learn by providing a much-needed break from sedentary classroom activities, opportunities to socialize, engage in imaginative play, and enhance their cognitive skills. Studies, such as KABOOM!’s 2013 Play Matters report, have consistently demonstrated that children afforded regular outdoor play exhibit improved academic performance and experience reduced levels of stress and anxiety. The inherent joy and freedom of play promote a sense of emotional release, helping children develop resilience and equipping them with coping mechanisms to navigate the complexities of both academic and personal adversities.

Located in the heart of Oakland’s San Antonio-Eastlake neighborhood, parents and educators at Franklin Elementary School long saw the need for a high-quality playspace for their students. In June of 2021, when KABOOM!, the national nonprofit dedicated to ending playspace inequity, partnered with Eat. Learn. Play., Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), and The CarMax Foundation, to revitalize an outdated schoolyard at Franklin Elementary School, the crucial role it would play in shifting the school’s culture was still unknown.

Since the installation of the new playground, with its modern structures, vibrant colors, and kid-inspired designs, the school has witnessed improvements in test scores, fostering a renewed and engaging learning experience for its students. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, students managed to maintain pre-pandemic proficiency rates, outpacing other schools in OUSD and nationwide. When comparing data from 2019 to 2022, Franklin Elementary exhibited a remarkable positive growth rate of 13.4%, surpassing the district average of 1.9%.

The revamped schoolyard at Franklin Elementary is equipped with a kid-designed play structure, multi-sport court, garden, and beautiful murals, as well as an Eat. Learn. Play. Little Town Library stocked with high-quality, diverse books. Franklin Principal Lusa Lai shared the impact that adding culturally relevant books has had on literacy rates, “One of our goals is to instill a love of learning by connecting students to a new book or a new concept they’re excited about. Once kids connect with an author or a series that they’re really excited about, they’ll want to keep reading. We can’t do that if we’re still using books students can’t relate to.”

In addition to the Little Town Library, Eat. Learn. Play. also sent new books to the students in December of 2022: “I wish you could have seen their reaction when they saw that the books were from their favorite superstar,” Principal Lai said excitedly of the donation. “Even our most hesitant readers were thrilled to open the boxes and excited to flip through the pages!”

To further support their literacy goals, the school has hired six experienced early literacy tutors. K-2 students receive 30 minutes of intensive instruction catered to their reading ability level daily. Principal Lai has seen significant data about how this model shifts early literacy rates, and the school is now extending the tutoring sessions to grades 3-5.

Stephen And Ayesha Curry's Eat. Learn. Play., Along With Partners KABOOM!, The CarMax Foundation, And Oakland Unified School District, Unveiled An Amazing New Playground, Multi-Sport Court, And Garden At Franklin Elementary School On Saturday, June 12

The updated schoolyard inspired the school’s administration to make additional changes—starting with removing the fencing that closed in most of Franklin’s campus: “We had a lot of fencing throughout our school. It literally felt like a prison,” said Principal Lai. “It sent this message of ‘I don’t trust you’ to staff and students. So, we took all the fencing down. This was the first step in uplifting academics, getting the kids to enjoy their surroundings and have self-confidence.”

Now, Franklin’s schoolyard not only serves as a physical space for play, but also a symbol of trust, support, and empowerment for the school community. The previous playground was at least 20 years old, having first been used when some current educators were just kids. “All of the many engaging features of Franklin’s amazing outside areas make our school culture shine and give the children a place to express themselves and experience many types of joy,” said John Zaro, a second-grade teacher at Franklin. “We didn’t always have that. Our previous playground was in sorry shape and it felt very empty.”

Introducing a revitalized schoolyard eliminated barriers that previously existed at Franklin Elementary, encouraging not only a sense of freedom, creativity, and confidence in the students, but a systemic shift in the school’s culture. Since then, the school has been on a journey of transformation, not only in terms of its physical appearance, but also in its approach to education.

Now, I feel uplifted by the smiles and buoyed by the joy I see on the children’s faces. With the many amazing features in our current outdoor areas, I see a new culture of engagement. Children interact in ways I have not seen before. Franklin Elementary is an extremely diverse school with a dozen languages spoken by the various families and their children, but when it’s time for recess and the kids are out in the yard, the language is the same: explore, move your body, and have fun. ”

John Zaro, teacher, Franklin Elementary School

The Impact of Partnerships

KABOOM! unites with communities to build kid-designed playspaces that can spark joy and foster a sense of belonging for kids often denied opportunities to thrive. These thoughtfully designed playspaces not only become dynamic extensions of the classroom, promoting hands-on learning, creativity, problem-solving, and social interactions, but they also foster a sense of ownership, cohesiveness, and shared purpose within the community.

With a focus on community-defined outcomes and recognizing the multifaceted impact of collaborative alliances with school systems, small businesses, and other nonprofit organizations, KABOOM! facilitates play integration into the educational landscape, creating an environment where children flourish. The power of partnerships lies in our ability to amplify the impact of our strengths.

Eat. Learn. Play. supports children’s well­-being through access to nutritious meals, quality reading resources, and opportunities to play and be active. Eat. Learn. Play. recently committed to focusing their efforts on improving Oakland public schools to transform the school experience for a generation of Oakland students. Efforts include working with a coalition of partners to continue transforming schoolyards throughout Oakland, helping to revitalize school sports programs, supporting stronger literacy outcomes through access to high-dosage tutoring, distributing high-quality, culturally relevant books, restocking school libraries, enhancing school cafeterias, investing in OUSD’s Central Kitchen, and providing meals and groceries to students and families.

The continued support of Eat. Learn. Play. and the successes seen by Franklin Elementary in the two years since the playspace build serve as a reminder that education extends beyond the classroom. It requires collaboration, dedication, and a deep understanding of the holistic needs of students. By listening to the community, combining our resources, expertise, and shared visions, Eat. Learn. Play., KABOOM!, and OUSD are working to create a supportive learning environment beyond the schoolyard.

We can address educational challenges and playspace inequity through collaborative and intentional partnerships to bring about transformative change. Together, we can nurture the potential of every child, ensuring they have the tools, support, and environments they need to thrive, empowering the next generation of leaders and learners.