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Nonprofit trains youth to play, and lead

Halina Nguyen (center) and Sophia Monteiro (right) enjoyed a Playworks basketball practice at Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

If Nia Buyu, 10, has learned anything in her two years as a junior coach, it’s that a game of rock, paper, scissors solves most playground conflicts.

On the field, she’s known as “Coach Nia.” The fifth-grader’s expertise is recess.

Through a nonprofit called Playworks New England, Buyu is one of 13 junior coaches at Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester. It’s a volunteer position her teachers and administration selected her and others for — and to keep the title, they need to keep their grades up.

Junior coaches, who don purple shirts, work alongside Playworks coaches toward common goals: to encourage youths to be physically active, and to use play to teach social and emotional skills.

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They might turn a game of tag into a lesson on respect and inclusion. Coaches create a cohort of fourth- and fifth-grade junior coaches to train in youth leadership and team-building activities.

Playworks has coaches at scores of schools in the region, according to Jonathan Gay, who has served as executive director of Playworks New England for the past two-and-a-half years. The organization, a national nonprofit, started in 1996 in California.

“In Boston we’re serving 40 elementary schools across the city,” Gay said. “When you start with Playworks, you often start off as an AmeriCorps coach during your year of service. . . . When you’re at your school, your serving that one school community for that entire year.”

Once coaches graduate from AmeriCorp, a voluntary civil society program, and wrap up their year of 1,700 hours of service, they often go on to be social workers and teachers across local school districts. Some keep working with Playworks as fund-raisers to continue spreading these programs to other schools and playgrounds around the state.

There’s a waiting list of schools who want to partner with Playworks.

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During recess, Buyu and other junior coaches encourage children to play together. They lead games of kickball or basketball or reach out to students who feel left out. When the youngest among them cry because they don’t get their way, Buyu tries to teach them about sharing.

“It comes with a lot of responsibilities,” Buyu said of her role. “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.”

Buyu leads by example. On a recent Thursday, it was spirit week at Neighborhood House Charter School. Buyu made her costume herself out of a stretchy pink shirt and pants. She wrote her school’s name on the outfit in marker and declared herself “Super Nia” for superhero day.

Her superpower? She saved the world by doing backbends. Claire Collins, Playworks coach at the school, said Buyu’s positivity is reflected in everything she does. Every child says hello as Buyu walks through the hallways. They all know her name. She’s in charge of facilitating fun.

“We talk about what grades are coming out, what games they like to play, and who’s going to lead the games,” Collins said. “Then junior coaches jump into recess giving high-fives, helping to lead games, and just playing with the kids that are there being good role models, showing the kids what the recess expectations look like.”

Buyu was also a member of the Playworks Girls’ Basketball League, which ran from March through April school vacation. On these teams, they don’t keep score. There are no tryouts. They scrimmage against other Playworks teams from other nearby elementary schools. The point of this play is to encourage participation, especially among young girls.

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The National Alliance for Sports found that only 59 percent of girls in urban elementary schools from third through fifth grade participate in at least one organized sport. In comparison, an estimated 80 percent of boys in urban elementary schools participate in at least one organized sport.

Gay said their teams are motivating young girls to play sports. At one of their final practices, the girls cheered as they practiced passing and shooting. They played together and learned offense and defense. It was cold, but most didn’t care.

“I enjoy that we’re with all our friends and it’s people we know that will support us,” said fourth-grader Sophia Monteiro, 10, a member of the team and also a junior coach.

“They help us get better,” said Adlemy Baez-Molina, 11, a fifth-grader.

“They don’t discourage you,” said Halina Nguyen, 10, a fourth-grader. “They encourage you . . . we’re better at stuff than we thought we were.”


Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.