It's not always easy to get kids to play nice. It's also not cheap.

Playworks, a national non-profit that dispatches recess coaches to mostly inner-city schools, says its job is to "put the play back on playgrounds." It comes at a cost of $60,000 per school.

The organization currently is employed by four St. Paul schools and plans to add eight metro-area schools next year, including two in Minneapolis and two in an inner-ring suburb.

Although Playworks charges $60,000, the company has helped the schools get grants and donations to offset more than half the cost. Schools paid $23,500 this year and will pay $25,500 next year.

Some say it's a good investment at a time when bullying is an omnipresent issue and teachers need to be more focused than ever on matters such as improving test scores and overall student achievement.

Others wonder whether it's money well spent, especially with St. Paul Public Schools facing close to a $25 million budget deficit, among other challenges.

"Clearly, we have staff that already supervises playgrounds during recess," said Mary Cathryn Ricker, St. Paul's teachers' union president. "My question is, couldn't you save money by training the staff to do what Playworks does?"

The district has traditionally employed teacher assistants to monitor recess.

"If you already have people -- our employees -- and they've passed background checks and they know the school communities, wouldn't it be more sustainable to train them to do whatever might be working rather than to continually shell out money every year?" Ricker said.

Principal Kris Peterson of Hayden and Prosperity Heights Elementary in St. Paul said, however, that Playworks couldn't have come at a better time. Prosperity Heights and Hayden Heights were combined by the district this year to cut costs. Combining schools requires staff, students and parents to build a new culture. It also opens up the potential for conflict between students from the schools.

"They know what they're doing," Peterson said of Playworks' structured recesses. "They've helped us build a vibrant community and connected kids to create an inclusive environment."

Jayne Ropella, principal of Eastern Heights Elementary, agrees. "We needed to do something that would teach children how to play where they can solve problems together and have fun." No staff members were replaced by the program, she said.

Individual schools decide whether to purchase the program. St. Paul district administrators do not need to approve the expense.

For the children, it means their play time is closely chaperoned by "recess coaches."

Playworks officials say actively monitored recesses can tamp down discipline problems, combat obesity rates and maybe even spark some of those sleeping brain neurons. In addition, they say, an unfettered recess is a ripe opportunity for bullying.

Psychologist Trisha Stark, however, says organizations such as Playworks are robbing students of the chance to be kids. Too much structure can slow a child's creativity and social development skills, she said.

"Kids are taught values and taught about being polite and being fair all day in the classroom and at home," said Stark, who works with the Minnesota Psychological Association. "And then they get a chance to apply it on their own in the playground so they can develop and use those skills. That's part of growing up.

"Having a monitor on the playground to intervene if they see bullying or hitting or pushing is fine," she said. "Someone to structure the play would make sense for kids who have specific social skill deficits, but not for normal developing children. That's supposed to be a time where they can put their creativity skills to use."

Teachers at Hayden and Prosperity Heights, however, said having Playworks is a relief.

"I think a lot of our energy nowadays goes into the curriculum," said Robyn Dittler, a second-grade teacher. "The last thing you're thinking about is recess."

Playworks, a 15-year-old non-profit, is in 250 schools in 30 cities nationally. It dispatches a full-time staff member to chaperone recess, teach children conflict-resolution skills and build a "junior coach" team. It also will create an after-school program or help with an existing one, as well as jump-start basketball and volleyball leagues for schools.

Recess coaches are required to go through three weeks of training. Most coaches are local recent college graduates or AmeriCorps volunteers, officials said.

World Cultures Magnet and Paul & Sheila Wellstone Elementary in St. Paul, along with Eastern Heights and Hayden and Prosperity Heights Elementary, became the first schools in Minnesota to test the program this year.

As for the students, recess is always a good thing.

During a recent sunny day, children were lined up and given a rundown of what games they could play and where they could play them by Samantha Weiss, the recess coach. "Coach Weiss" reminded them to play fair and to make sure everyone got a turn.

Students said the program has added some spunk to otherwise "boring" recess time.

"They give us very different games to play so we get to try new things," said Melissa Campos, an 11-year-old sixth-grader.

"Play is a vital part of the school day," said Thomas Evers, Minnesota's executive director of Playworks. "We offer a comprehensive solution to support learning."

Daarel Burnette II• 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib