It’s the penultimate day of spirit week at the Neighborhood House Charter School in Pope’s Hill, and under fifth-grader Nia Buyu’s sweatshirt is a custom tie-dye top that she modified herself. Scrawled on the front is the rallying cry that Nia and her basketball teammates chant when breaking from huddles: “NHCS, We the best!” On the back, a call and a response: “Who got spirit? Nia does!”
Nia, 10, is a junior coach with Playworks New England, part of a national nonprofit that aims to ensure that recess and safe, constructive play remain integral parts of every child’s school day. Playworks has taken its cause to more than 30 schools in Boston and more than 140 across the region, using sports as a tool to help students develop healthier lifestyles and achieve greater academic, social, and emotional success. In the year since she became a junior coach, Nia has proven to be a leader and a role model for her peers.
“Being a junior coach, it comes with a lot of responsibilities,” she said in an interview.
Many of those responsibilities involve de-escalating and resolving conflicts that may arise during recess. She handles most of these problems with a technique called “rock it out/talk it out,” in which the two kids arguing can choose to either play rock, paper, scissors, or work out their problem through discussion.
As most opt for the former, students quickly turn their focus back on the game, which, as Nia recognizes, is the whole purpose of recess.
“I think the point of being a junior coach is just to show the kids that recess is to have fun and not to worry about anything,” she said. “It’s showing the kids that you can have fun but also be serious and learn things at the same time that are not maybe a part of school but could help you with school and in life.”
This description mirrors what New England Playworks Executive Director Jon Gay had to say about his program. As he pointed out, in addition to providing health benefits, sports are also about building important social and emotional skills. “There are so many things you can learn from being on a team,” he said. “There’s the whole aspect of collaboration and working together...it’s teaching them how to become better citizens.”
But studies show these lessons are not always learned equally across the board; according to the National Alliance for Sports, only 59 percent of third- to fifth-grade girls in urban elementary schools participate in at least one organized sport, compared to 80 percent of boys. Closing this gap is another key piece of the nonprofit’s vision.
Playworks’ Developmental Sports leagues give girls like Nia the opportunity to participate in noncompetitive, developmental sports free of charge. “We’re trying to break down that norm,” said Gay. “Last year we had about 650 girls playing on our teams, and for 80 percent of them it was their first time on a team...it’s part of making sports more inclusive, so that it’s not just boys playing basketball at recess.”
For her part, Nia says that one-sided reality still exists at the school, but that it’s already changed somewhat.
“Two of my friends, Cameron and Samantha, both play with the boys on the basketball team because the boys actually think they’re good,” she said. With K-1 students looking up to her as an athletic leader, Nia makes sure to show them examples of coed teamwork and “teach them that it doesn’t have to be all boys and all girls.”
Playworks New England Development associate Amy French noted that, in addition to encouraging development in younger kids, the Junior Coach program also bears witness to transformations in the coaches themselves.
“There are so many stories of coaches just transforming after being given coaching responsibilities,” she said. “Some kids who might have been shy or had behavior issues before, they really change.”
Playworks Coach Claire Collins, who mentors Nia both as a junior coach and as a player on her basketball team, described how Nia had grown since becoming a coach. “I have seen Nia grow a lot more confident leading games, and her confidence definitely shines when she is with the younger kids,” she said. “I’ve seen her communication skills really improve, just in terms of being able to simply explain what’s going to happen to a group of kids whose attention spans are not very long. I’ve also seen her peer leadership really improve...she is always a model of good expectations, doing it in a way that’s not mean or condescending or like a teacher, but as a friend.”
As for Nia, she says the experience has helped to teach her patience. “I think the hardest part about being a junior coach is staying calm when kids are aggravating you,” she said. “You have to handle being calm and just focusing on the positive.”
Nia hopes to one day become either a teacher or a pediatrician, but for now she’ll continue to be a community leader at her school. In describing her duties as a coach, she invoked two of the core values taught to students at NHCS: “embracing effort” and “committing to the common good.”
As she drops phrases like that into a casual conversation, Nia shows that she possesses a poise and maturity that are remarkable in a ten year old. But don’t forget: She’s got spirit, too.