Interview with Chris Conard of PlayWorks Utah

Interview with Chris Conard

This post is the first in an ongoing series highlighting high-impact leaders who combine effective strategy, thoughtful measurement and evaluation, and continuous performance improvement to make a real difference in society. Cicero Social Impact recently connected with Chris Conard, the Executive Director of PlayWorks Utah, a rapidly-growing organization making an impressive impact on childhood development through play. We’re excited to share the interview below.

Organizational Background

What societal problem does Playworks try to solve?

At the top of the list of challenges desperately in need of effective solutions is public education.

By most accounts, and by most measures, our public education system in Utah is not effectively reaching its real potential; to ensure to that every child in public school is an engaged and productive learner. Recently published data by the University of Utahreports that “nearly one in five of all Utah students dropped out of high school in 2013.”

Reversing this trend will require embracing innovation and shifting transformational values within the education system itself. A multi-site, 25 year longitudinal study published recently in the American Journal of Public Health found strong links between social competencies as early as kindergarten and positive outcomes in high school, college and adulthood. Kindergarten students who exhibited “social competence” traits such as sharing, cooperating, and helping other kids were twice as likely to attain higher education and 46% more likely to have well-paying jobs at age 25; conversely, with each point decrease students had a 67% of having been arrested by adulthood.

Playworks leverages the power of play in elementary schools to teach important social and emotional skills and improve student engagement in school by creating positive, safe and inclusive school environments. We believe in the power of play to bring out the best in every kid and help kids thrive physically, socially, emotionally and academically.

What is Playworks’ core program model?

Playworks’ mission is to improve the health and well-being of children by increasing opportunities for safe, meaningful play. Playworks stops the chaos outside of the classroom, shifts behaviors, and accelerates learning inside the classroom

What are your outcomes to date?

Rigorous evaluations by Stanford University and Mathematica with a randomized control trial that found Playworks led to fundamental positive shifts in schools. Our innovation of social/emotional development through play has statistically significant impacts on bullying (reduction of 43%), vigorous physical activity (increase of 43%), transitions from recess back to classroom instruction (21 hours of recovered teaching time), and sense of safety (increase of 20%). Subsequent evaluations have found impact on student engagement (73% increase) in school. Playworks Utah currently impacts 41 elementary schools and 22,000 Utah children.

We also utilize annual survey data to assess program quality, results and areas of growth. Last year, 89% of teachers in Utah at Playworks schools reported reported a decrease in incidents of bullying and 93% reported that Playworks helps kids develop the skills needed to succeed in the classroom and community. Overall, participating teachers reported recovering upwards of 21 hours of instructional time. Using baseline and post assessments we find that 74% of all students increase in engagement in school. Finally, according to office discipline referral data from the schools, office referrals for discipline and negative behavior reduced by 30%.

What is your current scale and where are you going from here?

Playworks was founded in 1996 at two schools in California and has grown into a $34 million organization that grew from 5 to 41 schools between 2011 and 2015. In 2015-16, Playworks will serve 1,400 elementary schools and youth organizations across the U.S., reaching 650,000 students. In Utah, we are currently serving 41 schools elementary schools, reaching a total of 22,000 students across the state.

We have significantly changed the way children are playing and how the adults in their school communities see play as important to their own efforts to give children a real opportunity to grow and learn.

And now Playworks aspires to more.

We want to accelerate impact through a multi-tiered strategy aimed at changing the education system so that every elementary school-aged child in Utah experiences safe and healthy play every day at school.

Playworks Utah plans to expand its innovative approach to developing safe, healthy and happy children through play to more than 230 elementary schools and 175,000 children by December 2020, and to build infrastructure and ensure financial sustainability to support additional growth beyond 2020.

Reflections on Measurement and Impact

1) Why does Playworks collect data on its program activities and especially its impact? In what ways does that help you achieve your mission?

When you think about what data you should collect, it’s really important to highlight the distinction between outputs and outcomes. Most systems-changing impacts come from data that captures outcomes from an intervention–purely tracking outputs does not necessarily track outcomes. One example of this distinction would be that when Playworks Utah teaches important conflict resolution skills to 22,000+ kids in elementary schools (output), data suggests that incidents that escalate to the principal’s office are reduced (outcome), and the amount of conflict-free instructional time increases (outcome), etc. Playworks collects data from various sources, yet the data we collect is always tied to outcomes in our theory of change and logic model.

Playworks is an organization that is dedicated to learning, growth, and excellence. We use data both to track high quality programs and outcomes as well as highlight areas of improvement. Being a data-driven organization allows us to respond to trends and innovate to achieve great results. I’ve been inspired by Mario Morino’s group Leap of Reason that advances the notion that organizations need to dedicate themselves to continuous learning and improvement. Collecting data on outcomes and analyzing how they relate to program delivery and services provides a great lens for our organization to authentically to learn and improve.

2) How do you balance between the need for rigorous measurement and other factors such as cost, timeliness, and the relevance of your data? When do you opt for more rigor, and when do you opt for less?

In the non-profit sector, we are always balancing priorities against resources, timeliness, etc. Any non-profit is only as good as the high-quality intervention they are providing to strengthen the community. Data measurement is critical in discovering if, in fact, the intervention you are providing is making a true difference. Playworks has built data measurement into our program and operation both because it helps us determine the quality of our program and because it highlights areas we need to strengthen or innovate. Our more rigorous evaluations can help drive future strategy, evolution of mission, and systems-wide theories of change, but measurement does not necessarily always need to be rigorous to provide great feedback for an organization: simple surveys of our client base help us to course-correct program quality in real-time.

Playworks data for years showed that we are able to get kids more physically active at recess; after a rigorous external evaluation, we discovered that in addition to physical activity, we have tremendous outcomes around social/ emotional skills development. We are now leveraging that rigorous data as a launching pad for emphasizing the importance of safe and healthy play as a vehicle for greater social/emotional skills development in the education sector.

3) What does it take to use measurement data to improve as an organization? What capabilities, processes, or practices do you find are necessary for continuous improvement?

Using measurement data to improve as an organization doesn’t have to be daunting, but organizations have to be dedicated to the process in order to discover true learning. Continuous improvement is just that, continuous. Tracking data continually and using it to learn, grow and innovate can be a cultural shift for organizations. The key practice to using measurement data is thoughtfully analyzing trends and key indicators where you need to improve. No organization is completely flawless, and measurement data often provides a lens into program gaps or areas of concern. This provides a tremendous opportunity to adjust and improve to further hone your outcomes. The key is identifying indicators to measure that are tied directly to your aim. A good starting point for any organization would be to get really clear about your theory of change and program logic model. Careful evaluation of inputs, activities and outputs—and how they all get you to your outcomes—will provide key leverage points for measuring data and identifying data indicators that need to evaluated continually.

4) What are the biggest challenges you have encountered as you seek to develop an evidence base for your work?

I think the biggest challenge for organizations is to identify key data points that are tied directly to their mission and aim. The second challenge is designing the correct tools for measuring those indicators. Non-profits can spend a lot of time and resources measuring various aspects of their work that end up being irrelevant or extraneous. It is also important to find outcomes that are directly tied to the intervention you provide, and then differentiate those from ancillary outcomes. Honing in on primary outcomes and measuring indicators that lead to outcomes will provide a stronger evidence base for the intervention.

5) If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change in the sector regarding monitoring and evaluation? What would you like others to understand or do differently?

If I had a magic wand, I would love to see funders and non-profits truly become thought partners around continuous improvement. So often non-profits are nervous about evaluations that find weaknesses because they worry that such evaluations might result in loss of funders. I think the whole sector becomes stronger when more organizations put robust evaluation and measurement data at the forefront of their work. With so many competing priorities in the sector and often scarce resources, this shift toward rigorous evaluation hinges on the philanthropic community being dedicated to both assisting non-profits with resources to measure data, and also placing outcomes-based evidence at the forefront of competitive funding decisions. In addition, it would be tremendous if funders valued measurement data as a place of growth and an opportunity to adapt and innovate for non-profits they support. Collaboration between funders and non-profits around data, evaluation, and continuous improvement provides an avenue for creating systems-wide change.

Allison Miller


Allison Miller currently serves as a Principal at Ed Direction, working directly with state and district education leaders to improve teaching and learning at scale. Allison oversees content development for Ed Direction’s work with Turnaround Schools in the state of Utah. With over a decade of classroom teaching experience at the elementary level, Allison is passionate about education and the role that teachers play in improving student achievement for all learners, regardless of their level of ability. Her experience in the classroom gives her a unique perspective when working with schools and districts across the country. Allison uses her knowledge of research and pedagogy to help teachers implement changes that lead to improvements in instruction and learning.

Start a Conversation

Thank you for your interest in Cicero Group. Please select from the options below to get in touch with us.