In the Classroom - Recess

Beth Crastnopol, Director of Professional Development Initiatives, Gateways

Using recess to its best advantage

Ask a classroom teacher about what happens when there are days in a row of indoor recess, and you will hear tales of woe. Children become less engaged and behavior problems increase. Teachers know from day-to-day experience that time for unstructured, outdoor play is crucial in balancing the tasks of an elementary school day.

Certainly, the research backs up what teachers know instinctively. As Anthony Pellegrini, a leading researcher on recess from the University of Minnesota, reports, “Research documents that recess affords many physical, cognitive and social benefits for primary school children.” Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics delineates the following benefits of the kind of play that typically takes place during recess:

  • Allows children to develop creativity and imagination while developing physical, cognitive, and emotional strengths;
  • Contributes to brain development;
  • Essential to developing social and emotional ties;
  • Helps forge connections between students;
  • Teaches students leadership as well as group skills that may be useful in adult life; and
  • A natural tool that children can and should use to build their resilience.

Children on playgroundBut, for many children, recess can be anything but a positive experience. Many find it challenging to navigate the social or physical demands of unstructured time. How can we, as educators, turn recess into a successful experience for all students?

The first step is to examine carefully when and why it is not working for particular students by asking some essential questions like: Is the student unable to navigate the noise and perceived chaos of unstructured time? Does s/he have difficulty interacting in a group? Are the language and social demands of play a mystery?

Once you’ve identified the barriers to success, you can make accommodations to the structures that are in place for all students and, in addition, engage in explicit instruction to help those students better navigate the “jungle” of recess.

The list below offers some common problems and possible supports. But as in all good teaching, each child needs to be seen as an individual. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box in coming up with strategies to help all students successfully access this important part of a school day.

Strategies for Recess Inclusion:

  • Provide a small group game that is supervised by a teacher. Include the student who needs support, along with peers who will be kind and inclusive. The game can serve to teach play skills as well as reinforce social skills that may be taught in the school’s SEL curriculum.
  • Allow students to bring out a board game or card game that two students can play quietly together. Many schools set up a ‘quiet area’ for pairs of children to play a game or work on a craft.
  • Provide individual or small group instruction on how to use the playground equipment. Let children practice climbing skills in a teacher-guided session that is not at the regularly scheduled recess time.
  • Practice recess social stories or scripts. Then provide guidance during recess as the child first practices the script.
  • Before going outside, have children develop a checklist of possible activities. For some children, choosing the activity and whom they will play with before recess will be the only intervention needed. This pre-selection can be in the form of a written list or even a set of photos with activities.

The bottom line is that being sensitive to the needs of individual children extends beyond the classroom. Creating the conditions during recess that promote social growth and confidence for all children means that everyone—those with typical and atypical needs—will benefit from the joys and learning of play. Not only will that 15 minute break be a productive time, but children will return to the classroom more relaxed and ready to learn.

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