As LiiNK Approaches 10th Year, Unstructured Play Still Reigns


The LiiNK Leadership Team

Along with Debbie Rhea (center), the LiiNK leadership team includes (l-r) Candice Williams-Martin, Carol Bollinger, Kim Jones and Dave Farbo.


Debbie Rhea is serious about play and its benefits for schoolchildren.

“Schools are way too serious about keeping a child in a seat to learn content instead of what helps the child’s brain, body and social and emotional aspects develop,” said Rhea, professor and LiiNK director in Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences.

As director of the LiiNK Project (short for Let’s Inspire Innovation n’ Kids), Rhea is spearheading a movement to improve brain development in pre-K through fifth grade students by increasing outdoor physical activity and adding character development curriculum. After implementing four 15-minute outdoor, unstructured play breaks and a 15-minute character lesson into daily routines, LiiNK elementary schools are seeing improvements in cognitive function, happiness and fitness among students.

The inspiration for LiiNK came from Rhea’s six-month sabbatical in fall 2012 to see for herself how Finland’s school system had worked its way to the top of global rankings after implementing reforms in the early 1970s.

“Finland’s schools literally went from an F to an A+, and that’s what struck me. They took 30 years and just continued to rise until they were at the top,” she said.

During her visit, Rhea talked to stakeholders at every level, from Pasi Sahlberg, the director general at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture (the equivalent of the U.S. secretary of education) to university education professors, grades 1-12 administrators and teachers, parents and students, and even the Finnish Student Sports Federation.

“All of a sudden it hit me: We don’t have recess in our schools like we used to. Why did we all of a sudden negate recess? It’s because our country was going in the direction of competition and trying to be the best instead of what’s best for kids and matching the developmental appropriateness of what should be there,” Rhea said. “That hit me hard. But it was clear as day what we needed to do here in the States.”

When Rhea returned to TCU, it was the kinesiology department’s turn to host a Cecil H. and Ida Green Honors Chair. Rhea invited Sahlberg and organized a three-day symposium around his spring 2013 visit that included workshops for educators as well as a presentation for the community at large.

“That event kicked off what is now a 10-year look into this kind of mindset shift in schools,” Rhea said.

Rhea had recruited TCU College of Education lab school Starpoint, Fort Worth’s private Trinity Valley School and three area public school districts to participate in the Green Chair workshop. All five planned to be part of her pilot program.

Thankfully, she said, the public schools decided to wait.

“I found that it takes some pilot work before you launch big ideas across districts. I was so glad they needed more time. It gave me time to get this right,” she said.

The data from the pilot program’s first three semesters proved she did get it right: “Kids went from 60% off-task behavior to about 20%. We also found that after doing the Positive Action character curriculum, kids were becoming more empathetic, trusting and respectful,” Rhea said. “I took the data back to each of the three public school districts individually and asked, ‘What do you think?’”

Eagle Mountain-Saginaw and Irving ISDs were both ready to come on board. Training began in 2015 and LiiNK launched in four public schools in 2016.

“It took a two-year turnaround to get to that point, but we were ready,” Rhea said. “The stats we received from the public schools were just like the private schools.”

Students at recess

LiiNK is now in 50 schools in 10 school districts in Texas and Oklahoma as well as collaborating with a Finnish charter school in Michigan. The LiiNK team includes 12 staff members and half a dozen TCU faculty members who help with research.

To date, LiiNK schools report a 40% reduction in disruptive classroom behaviors, a decline in physical stress and a 7% drop in overweight/obese trends for students — all while maintaining or improving standardized test scores. In addition, 70% of LiiNK teachers report improved health.

“Schools that started this program and maintained their four unstructured play breaks a day and character development curriculum are really experiencing happier kids and much more emotionally stable kids — even through COVID,” Rhea said, noting those results don’t include the kids who did online learning during the pandemic. “Kids are more focused in the classroom. Fitness, balance and agility have improved. Discipline reports have decreased. Body fat percentages in kids have become more healthy weight and less overweight/obese percentages than the state and national averages.”

Now in her sixth year with LiiNK, Chaney Curran, principal at Remington Point Elementary in Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, was attracted by the idea of allowing students and teachers the opportunity to have intentionally scheduled brain and body breaks.

“Students’ minds are becoming increasingly active, and they have difficulty with the confinement and perimeters of a classroom setting,” she said. “The regular recesses allow a student the necessary activity and motion needed to return to the classroom more invigorated and renewed.”

Changing their mindset about increasing recess time is often the biggest challenge for LiiNK adopters. But once students get into a routine and transitions become more precise, teachers find that they are recouping the time by not having to redirect and reteach as often.

“It was easy to get caught up on how the additional recesses impacted our daily instructional schedule,” Curran said. “We focused on where we were losing instructional time instead of reviewing the quality of instructional time we were gaining when students came back into the classroom refocused.”

Candice Williams-Martin, LiiNK coordinator for Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, said that one of the biggest things she sees is students being happy coming to school again.

“For a long time, students have been becoming so stressed out by school at such an early age that they’re burning out in like third grade,” she said. “So we’ve got kids who are actually still excited to come to school and excited to learn.”

Other educators echo her thoughts.

“The most important benefit in my mind is happy, healthy, resilient kids. I believe that’s the business we’re in. I do believe this is also creating conditions that are optimal for learning,” said Pete Silvius, director of Whole Child Initiatives in Seguin ISD. “I would encourage every school district decision-maker to really analyze their system and think through how LiiNK could benefit them. This is what we need in the world now — we need more opportunity to connect ourselves to the natural world.”

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, Rhea plans to continue educating schools leaders near and far about the benefits of LiiNK.

“This needs to be something that is embraced by every school in the country,” she said.

Read On: What is Unstructured Play?

LiiNK’s “unstructured” play is self-directed and self-controlled in an outdoor environment that’s safe for kids. Play becomes “structured” when it’s directed by others or has rules, strategies or measured outcomes.

“It’s kids doing what they want either with each other or by themselves. Teachers are hands off,” explained Debbie Rhea, LiiNK director.

Rhea has several non-negotiables for a LiiNK playground: No technology. No balls. No reading materials. No trying to get kids to play with someone who sits alone. No teacher interaction with kids unless there’s a problem.

“We’re trying to help kids learn how to socialize again and be a part of a whole grade level. When you’re in a classroom all the time, you only know the kids in your own classroom,” she said. “With LiiNK, they get to socialize with everybody in the grade level when they go out and play.”

Teachers also go outside and — just like the students — get a break to reboot and reenergize.

“When they come back in, they’re in a better disposition,” Rhea said. “They’re happier working with the kids, and the kids are happier working with the teacher. It just makes for a great situation throughout the day.”

Although schools in Finland allow sports during playtime, Rhea quickly found that a ball on the playground led to problems in America’s ultracompetitive culture.

“What I observed that first year is if they had a ball — no matter what kind of ball it was — they would spend the first 5-10 minutes of a 15-minute break figuring out who was on who’s team and how they were going to get started,” she said. “There was no collaboration or cooperation, and kids were getting emotionally hurt because they weren’t picked for a team. The ball took away from all the creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking that can take place.”

Chaney Curran, principal at Remington Point Elementary in Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, said their students tend to struggle with the socialization and problem-solving component of adolescence.

“I attribute that to the excessive amount of time children spend in front of a screen, not engaging in dialogue and imaginary play,” she said. “At LiiNK recesses, students are interacting with each other, corresponding and devices are removed from their environment. Children are doing what they should be doing more of — playing, talking, problem-solving and imagining.”