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LiiNK Center for Healthy Play

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Mission & Vision

Our Mission is to advance sustainable healthy living in children and adults through cutting-edge research, innovative community-based programs and dissemination of evidence-based practices focused on the power of unstructured, outdoor play.

Our Vision is to develop a larger percentage of active, healthy and resilient children who become active, healthy and resilient adults.

The LiiNK Project

The LiiNK Project (Let's Inspire Innovation 'N Kids) transforms the school environment for learning and mental health through implementation of unstructured, outdoor play throughout the day and character skill lessons daily.

This is a research-based, inclusive, innovative model developed and directed by Debbie Rhea, Ph.D., to promote mental health, resiliency, happiness, physical skills and body composition, brain development and social interactions, while reducing stress and discipline issues in children.

The Link Center for Healthy Play is an extension of the LiiNK Project and it:

  • Educates teachers on the importance of play and the outdoors
  • Trains teachers how to implement recess and character lessons daily
  • Develops effective classroom environments
  • Implement policies and procedures for quality school days
  • Improves teacher satisfaction and happiness
  • Gathers long-term data on students and teachers, tracking factors like social-emotional health, behavior, attention, teacher retention, body composition, motor skills, strength and stress levels


TCU Rickel Academic Wing
Room 245

Right Moves: A LiiNK Center for Healthy Play Podcast

Inspired by The LiiNK Project and presented by TCU’s LiiNK Center for Healthy Play, the “Right Moves” podcast delves into discussions on holistic well-being for both children and adults. It centers on the state of the U.S. education system, national health and strategies to restore overall wellness.

The podcast aims to spotlight fundamental health principles and introduce evidence-based practices that can be applied effectively in various settings, including homes, workplaces, schools, the medical field and community support groups.

Listen Now

LiiNK Milestones

  • 2024 – LiiNK is in three U.S. states across many school districts
  • 2022 – Right Moves Podcast launched
  • 2021 – Advocacy begins on the state and local levels
  • 2019 – Dr. Rhea publishes "Wrong Turns, Right Moves in Education"
  • 2018 – TCU College of Education incorporates recess kits in classroom learning based on LiiNK indoor recess procedures
  • 2016 – LiiNK adds 10 more public schools, including four more districts in Texas and one in Oklahoma
  • 2015 – First four public schools adopt LiiNK (Irving ISD and Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD) in grades K and 1
  • 2012 – LiiNK launched in two private schools (TVS and Starpoint), grades K and 1, in Fort Worth, Texas

LiiNK Results

  • Student BMI is significantly better in LiiNK schools
  • Off-task behaviors have decreased by 40% among LiiNK students while remaining unchanged in control schools
  • Empathy is improving and bullying is decreasing in LiiNK students 
  • LiiNK students:
    • Continue to be focused and attentive over the entire school year, especially in the afternoons
    • Are significantly stronger in their arms and legs 
    • Have significantly more motor coordination 
    • Have lower chronic stress levels 


Lab Members

Deborah Rhea

Dr. Rhea has been an educator for the past 43 years, the first 11 years in K-12 physical education and the last 32 years at the university level preparing physical education teachers and researching children through physical activity and play. She is an author, researcher, motivational speaker, educational consultant and behavior change trainer. Dr. Rhea has received national media attention as a result of LiiNK from many different news outlets such as "The Today Show," The Washington Post and NBC's "Nightly News." She has published in numerous journals and presented professionally on many different topics related to living a healthy and productive life. Dr. Rhea has received the Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Achievement as a Creative Teacher and Scholar and the Healthcare Hero Award from the Dallas Business Journal and the Fort Worth Business Press for her research to transform school policies and create intrinsically motivated active, healthy children and adults. Her newest book, “Wrong turns, Right moves in Education,” and her new podcast, “Right Moves,” reflect why the policies and procedures representing LiiNK are needed in all aspects of our lives.

Connor Judd

Connor earned her Master’s degree in Kinesiology with a concentration in sport and exercise psychology from the University of North Texas, and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Texas State University. Connor has an extensive background working with children in various settings such as emergency shelters, elementary schools, foster care homes and the juvenile justice system.

Mark Lopez

Mark graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in educational psychology with a focus on human development and family science. His professional training has provided a strong foundation in human development, particularly socioemotional development. Additionally, he has taught developmental courses, has training in observational ratings of parent-child interactions and aims to build a secure knowledge of research, statistics and measurement. 

Rayna WebbRayna is a second-year master's student in kinesiology with an emphasis in exercise psychology. Her thesis focuses on the social and emotional development of elementary students who receive character development lessons. Her goal is to pursue a Ph.D. in school psychology.

Lauren Wagner

Lauren is a first-year master’s student with an emphasis in sport and exercise psychology and focuses her research on the impact of a recess intervention on limb imbalances, injuries and optimism in elementary school-aged children. Laurens’s goal is to get a doctorate in sport psychology to become a sport psychologist and Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) for dancers, health care workers and first responders.

Hailey von Borck

Hailey is a first-year master’s student in kinesiology with an emphasis in exercise and sport psychology and focuses on understanding the relationship that play has on pre-adolescent children by assessing their motor skills and their levels of self-esteem. Hailey’s future career aspirations are to get her doctorate in clinical psychology and to become a sport psychologist.

Dennis Cheek, Ph.D., Hair Cortisol Lab Director

Dennis Cheek






Yan Zhan, Ph.D., Statistician

Yan Zhang

Current Projects

Limb imbalances and muscular strength deficits in children can increase injury risk due to sedentary behaviors. Recess promotes physical activity and enhances bone and muscle development. This study investigates whether more recess time improves overall muscular strength and neuromuscular control in elementary kids. Five tests assess lower limb (vertical jump and side-step), upper limb (push-up and grip strength) and neuromuscular control (3-hop) during physical education classes. They also developed the Movement Pattern Observation Tool (MPOT) to study limb movements during recess, spawning further graduate studies on limb imbalances.
Obesity is a widespread issue in the U.S. among both adults and children. While Body Mass Index (BMI) has traditionally been used to measure obesity, it's limited as it doesn't assess body fat. Body Impedance Analysis (BIA) offers a more comprehensive assessment, measuring fat mass, fat-free mass and body fat percentage by sending a light electric current through the body. Our lab employs the TANITA IRONKIDS BF-2000 Wireless Body Monitor for these assessments. This scale is both valid and reliable, making it suitable for field settings like schools, where we examine the impact of recess time on body fat percentages in elementary children.
Elementary school children are facing mounting chronic stress, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety levels among adolescents are soaring, with suicide ranking as the 10th leading cause of death for 5–9-year-olds and the second leading cause for 10–14-year-olds. Our undergraduate and graduate students are deeply committed to the LiiNK intervention program, aiming to engage with these children in schools and observing recess dynamics to enhance their physical and social-emotional development. Through their research, they explore how recess frequency and socioeconomic factors impact chronic stress in elementary students. With parental consent, these students gather hair samples to extract cortisol levels, providing valuable insights into children's stress levels.
Many U.S. children lack essential character skills, with empathy deficits contributing to increased bullying and other negative behaviors. This longitudinal study assesses whether the LiiNK intervention — a combination of 60 minutes of unstructured outdoor play and daily 15-minute character development lessons — can enhance social-emotional health in elementary children. Social-emotional health is evaluated using xSEL data, measuring emotion regulation, social problem-solving, social perspective-taking and self-control. These findings could shed light on the root causes of discipline issues and unhealthy behaviors in schools.