Power of Positive Play
Emilie Phillips Smith ’82 builds better after-school programs, one game at a time
by Ali Benjamin
After-school programs—an important part of the school day for many children of working parents—have a long history of boosting children’s self-esteem, achievement and sense of community, but only if they’re run well. That’s where Emilie Phillips Smith ’82 comes in. Smith has devoted much of her scholarly work and professional life to improving the quality of child-care and youth-focused initiatives throughout Pennsylvania. At the heart of her work is LEGACY Together, an applied research program that she founded in 2006. The program tests the impact in after-school programs of the PAX Good Behavior Game, which has been shown to reduce disruptions and increase students’ attention in classroom settings. So far, LEGACY Together (Leading, Educating, Guiding, A Community of Youth Together) has empowered more than 1,000 children in Pennsylvania to connect more deeply with others; it has helped reduce hyperactivity, delinquent behavior and substance abuse.
Have always been inspired to help youth. As a teenager, I volunteered in community-based programs, teaching and mentoring inner-city youth. I tried to help kids earn their privileges and learn the value of self-control and hard work.
Schools can only do so much. Seventy percent of all youth crime occurs between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. If kids are going to get in trouble, it’s after school. Children are especially at risk in lower-income communities, where neighborhoods can be quite dangerous. After-school programs can be powerful havens for kids that contribute to their overall development. What we’re trying to do is make sure that they’re run really well.
The heart of LEGACY is a game. The PAX Good Behavior Game was developed in 1969 as a classroom-management tool. Kids “compete” against each other to earn rewards for refraining from disruptive, inattentive or aggressive behavior. When they do well, they win activity prizes like dancing and yarn-ball battles. Having teams encourages children not only to be on their own best behavior, but also to urge their peers to do their best. It creates positive peer pressure rather than negative peer pressure.
It works. Using observational data, as well as surveys from directors, staff and children, we found clear benefits to using the game. Students who participate are less hyperactive. There is less vandalism, less theft and less substance abuse. Children care more about their peers, are better able to listen and connect far more effectively with the people around them. They also have stronger relationships with the adults in their lives.
The human connection is what matters most. Ultimately, LEGACY isn’t about winning a game; it’s about connectedness. LEGACY enhances relationships, and those relationships really matter. Adults and youth work together and play together. Adults offer praise, and at the same time children are seen reminding each other to do well. They become active participants, not merely bystanders, in their own after-school community.
My own support comes from my Smith friends. These women were leaders back in college; they remain leaders today—in so many different ways. One is a pastor of a church and a college counselor. Another gave up a lucrative career in law to become a pastor at a women’s prison. Another uses her law career for social justice. Another advocates for housing for senior citizens. We inspired each other at Smith; we were there for one another then, and we continue to do that 30 years later.
So much work lies ahead. Now that we have the data to prove that LEGACY works, we want to do longitudinal follow-up. We want to continue to support after-school staff via technology. We want to introduce new aspects of the program and take it to more sites. It’s so powerful to hear the kids say things like, “The program has helped me care more about other people.” So how do we help kids find their place in the world? How do we keep them from getting lost? That’s really what I’m trying to do, in both my teaching and research: to reduce as much as I can the number of lost children.
This story appears in the Spring ’14 SAQ.