This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal.
At 66 years old, Richard Johnstin is still a kid at heart.
Every day around 10:30 a.m. Johnstin heads down to the West Somerville Neighborhood School and gets ready for recess. He brings equipment for classic playground activities—jump rope, foursquare, hula hoops—and plans bigger games like tag, basketball or soccer.
Adoringly known as “Coach Dick” on the playground, Johnstin works with almost 400 students, planning daily activities during recess.
Partnering with Playworks, a nonprofit organization that brings play and physical activity into elementary schools as means of improving health and wellbeing, Johnstin tries to bring fresh new takes on old school games.
“We’ve all played tag when we were kids,” said Johnstin. “But now we put in little rules and twists. Like banana tag, where you put your arms up [when tagged] and you have to be peeled to step back in the game.”
Changing the games each day, he explained, keeps students engaged. At recess, he said, there are no distractions or technology; it’s just a time for kids to play.
“That’s when kids learn their social skills,” said Johnstin. “They learn to strategize and compromise and that’s just really important … that little 15-minute window everyday, it gives them an opportunity.”
A long-awaited retirement and a quick return
Before working with Somerville Public Schools, Johnstin was originally a defense contractor at an automated systems company in Burlington. But when the Cold War ended, he said, he and many of his colleagues were laid off.
While he struggled to find a job in his field, he found one at an after school program, where he worked for 18 years.
After that Johnstin decided to retire, but found himself bored all the time.
“I missed the kids,” said Johnstin. “My wife said, ‘you’re not done yet.’”
Johnstin came out of his retirement and found a job with the West Somerville Neighborhood School as a utility aide. His assignment? The playground.
During his second year, he remembered, the school brought in Playworks, who was looking for a recess coach.
“Since I was already the recess guy, they said, ’you’re the recess coach,’” said Johnstin. “And that’s how I got involved with [Playworks].”
Though the organization specifically services kindergarten through fifth grade, Johnstin works with students from kindergarten to eighth.
“The program has been a huge success at our school,” he said. “Incidents on the playground have gone way, way down. The kids just have fun.”
Kids being kids
With Playworks, continued Johnston, recess has become a no pressure situation where students can do what they want.
Today children are always busy with organized sports, clubs and other activities. Johnstin spent the majority of his childhood on his family farm in Virginia, spending his days playing outside with his three older brother and sisters.
It’s tougher to a be a kid now, said Johnstin. There are infinite distractions and kids just don’t have the time to “meet up with friends on the corner” or “play ball” like they used to.
“I cringe when I hear the word ‘playdate,’” he said. “Really? You have to have a date to play?”
Family life is much different than it once was as well, continued Johnstin. Nowadays both parents usually work long days, he continued, and children don’t always have the free time or role models they need.
But on the playground, he said, kids have the chance to relax and get their energy out. They can talk and play with teachers and coaches, like Johnstin.
Last year, he remembers, a group of second graders were playing basketball. One of the students bounced the ball to Johnstin, asking him to take a shot.
“By the grace of God it went in,” Johnstin said with a laugh. “They started saying, ‘Oh my God, he made it! He’s so old but he made it! Did you see that?’ It was priceless.”
That’s the best part of the job, he said, the smiles and the fun.
“When you’re my age, all of these kids become your grandkids almost, in one way or another,” he said. “A lot of kids are just looking for someone to listen to them … you can’t always do things for them, but you can at least listen.”