Meet Elizabeth Cushing. Elizabeth is President of Playworks. As president, Elizabeth leads the senior management team and is responsible for ensuring that all strategic targets are met across the organization.

What is the core/heart of Playworks’ intervention?

Playworks taps children’s intrinsic motivation to play in order to teach them valuable social and emotional skills like cooperation, respect, and resolving conflict. So it sounds very simple, but by paying attention to how kids learn through play we are able to transform their experience of school and the school climate as a whole. We are increasing student engagement and physical activity while decreasing bullying, all with a minimal investment. We want to transform schools from a place where kids are not sure they want to be to a place where they want to be.

We like to quote Don Berwick “Some is not a number, soon is not a time.” What is your current 18 to 36 month aim?

Our aim is that by December 2020, 3.5 million children in 7,000 elementary schools will experience safe and healthy school everyday. What’s significant is that our aim does not say “Playworks.” We recognize that our vision is about play and not about our organization. Stating that emphatically in the aim inspires us to be creative about other partners and channels for making that play happen. Other organizations can benefit from taking this perspective. Ask yourself, what social good you want to achieve for society and who else could be a partner in that work that is outside of our organization?

What were the most important take-aways for you from the Skid Row School for Large-Scale Change?

There are two. The first was the idea of unleashing. If you think broadly about who cares about kids being able to cooperate with each other or kids being active or feeling good at school, there are a lot of stakeholders and influencers that might be able to join us in this work. So, it really is about taking us out of the silo of our own organization and truly unleashing others to contribute to more play happening. We are currently working on a set of public statements or principles that make our vision concrete so that others have a clear idea for what they can do to help more children get to play every day.

The second take away was that it’s not important to know the precise strategies you’re going to use to scale. It’s more important to try things quickly, learn from them, and then go back and and try new things based on your learning. I particularly took in the bright spot strategy and the focus on capturing data on small experiments to learn. We have incorporated those practices into our daily operations, which has produced a concrete approach to innovation.

What advice would you give a new leader who really wants to spread/scale their work?

I would say to really do reflections with your leadership, board, and stakeholders about what you’re trying to achieve that transcends your own organization’s existence. Large-scale social change isn’t worth it to grow an organization. It’s only worth it if you’re changing the world beyond what you actually control. And, that mindset shift is powerful if it influences your daily decisions. At Playworks, we ask ourselves every day how does each decision we’re considering get us to our aim. We are trying to be disciplined about not doing things that don’t get us to the aim. It’s an operational mindset. You need real clarity of what you’re trying to achieve.

Reflect on what you’re trying to achieve that transcends your own organization’s existence. @eacushing Click To Tweet

What gets you motivated and out of bed every morning?

I’m really  motivated by the 3.5 million kids. A lot of these kids are not having the experience of school that they deserve. If we can figure this out, then they will. Having seen the power of play that can change a child’s day to day experience, I want to make that happen for the 3.5million.

How do you recharge your batteries and take care of yourself?

  1. Spending time doing things that feed me like tennis, gardening, and baking.
  2. Sharing my experience with others who are similarly trying to change the world. The camaraderie of sharing the breakthrough moments recharges me. I found that through connections we made through Billions Institute that other organizations are working through the same challenges, and it’s energizing working with them. I appreciate building relationships with those who are trying to do the same thing.

If you had three wishes for humanity and the planet, what would they be?

  1. Everyone would act from a place of kindness. That would change the world!
  2. If we made decisions based on the impact on children all over the world, our decisions would be different. I would love it if we made decisions based on what’s good for kids.
  3. Recognize the daily opportunities to do good. That’s all we can do – right actions everyday and to have faith that those right actions matter.
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