Fourth-graders at the William Dick School, in North Philly, listened intently yesterday as they learned the rules of dodgeball.

"If someone taps you with the ball, you're out," said "recess coach" Joe Cokes, demonstrating by touching a ball to a student's chest. "If you don't catch the ball, you're out."

After a few more lessons, Cokes blew his whistle and the kids sprinted to their sides to play.

Cokes is one of several "recess coaches" from a youth-fitness advocacy group that's in the city this week teaching kids in nine district schools how to play nice during recess.

Playworks, a California-based nonprofit, not only teaches low-income students across the nation how to play games, but how to lead games and equip the students with leadership skills to solve conflicts on their own, said Jill Vialet, who founded the group 15 years ago.

The group, formerly known as Sport4Kids, operates in urban districts in 10 other large cities and is here as part of a pilot program.

"Kids spend more time in virtual play these days," Vialet said, explaining why a program such as this is needed. "If I had a choice between watching Brady Bunch inside or playing outside unsupervised, I want to be outside.

"Nowadays, children don't have that choice anymore."

That's because in many of the city's poor neighborhoods it's not safe to play in the streets or parks, she said. As a result, kids come to school not knowing how to play with each other or solve arguments on their own.

Studies conducted on the national model found that there were fewer fights and suspensions at schools where the program has run, and students improved socially and academically, she said.

Principal Amy Williams said that recess is one of the most challenging times of the school day and that she's considering making the program permanent.

"There's so much focus on instruction that people look negatively at play," Williams said. "[Structured play is] not only healthy, but it helps improve instruction."

The program, which joined up here with the Eagles Youth Partnership, also runs team leagues, after-school sports, a leadership program and classroom game time, during which students and their teachers interact indoors.

The program couldn't have come at a better time in the city, said Cokes, a former football player from Oakland, Calif., who said that Philly kids are the most out-of-shape of all students in cities he's visited since joining Playworks six years ago.

"These kids are out of shape out here," he said. "They come out [of the lunchroom] with soda, candy and chips and sometimes just lay around."

In Philadelphia, 57 percent of kids - and 70 percent of black and Latino children - are either obese or overweight, said Giridhar Mallya, director of policy and planning for the city's Health Department.

"This will be the first generation to live fewer years than their parents," he said.

In Harrisburg yesterday, the state Board of Education voted to advance a draft regulation that would greatly increase the exercise that most students get during school hours and toughen nutritional guidelines for the food served in public schools.

District officials have committed to improving the health and wellness curriculum, said BettyAnn Creighton, director of the district's Health, Safety and Physical Education office.

"The benefits [of socialized recess] are endless," she said. "We want [the activity] to be of value - it increases social skills and reduces injuries."

She added that principals who decide to invite Playworks back for the full year in the fall are responsible for paying roughly $23,000 for their services.

Each school is assigned a coach who teaches students - as well as school staff - activities from a playbook with more than 500 games in it, said Playworks' Marjorie Nightingale, who is supervising the Philadelphia program.

Kids play Tag, Switch, Four-Square and, to resolve potential conflict, kids do Rock, Paper, Scissors.

As the pilot program comes to an end today, Cokes said that students should be able to continue with the lessons they've learned. Junior coaches, usually older students, will be put in charge of leading games, he said.

Meanwhile, fourth-grade teacher Dana Swetkowski said that she's noticed a difference in her students since Cokes rolled into the school on Monday.

"Some kids have anger [problems], but I've noticed a positive attitude across the board," she said.

"Did I do good, Coach?" one student asked from inside a second-floor window of the school after recess. "Yeah, you're doing great," Cokes replied.

"Am I an athlete?" the boy asked, flexing a scrawny arm. Before Cokes could reply, the boy answered, "I am an athlete," then darted off.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.