Supporting Student Mental Health Through Play

  1. Updates

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Playworks and the American Academy of Pediatrics teamed up for a special webinar exploring the ecosystem of care for kids’ mental health and the transformative role of play. 

This virtual conversation engaged medical professionals, educators, and other community leaders to shine a spotlight on the various people who form the ecosystem of care for youth and how play-based practices can make a difference across all of those relationships and settings.

Our panel of experts included: 

Headshot of Gigi Chawla

Gigi Chawla, MD, MHA, pediatrician, received her medical degree and business degree from the University of MN and is the Vice President and Chief of General Pediatrics at Children’s Minnesota.




Elizabeth Cushing is CEO of Playworks, a national organization dedicated to ensuring access to safe and healthy play for all kids.




headshot of Jessica Driscoll

Jessica Driscoll is the Assistant Principal at Marcy Arts Elementary School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.




Headshot of Dr Arwa Nasir HeadshotDr. Arwa K. Nasir, MBBS, MSc, MPH is Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, and is the chair of the AAP’s Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health.



Headshot of Dr. Michael PatrickMichael D. Patrick, Jr, MD, is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, and host of PediaCast and PediaCast CME Podcasts.



To help add to the discussion, attendees were encouraged to submit questions related to their experiences with play and student mental health for a Q&A session moderated by Dr. Gigi Chawla. 

We received dozens of excellent questions and although we could not answer them all live during the webinar, our panel of experts have provided some additional responses and resources below.


How does play help students who are easily dysregulated?

Play is a powerful way for students to engage in activities that are inherently enjoyable, which can help reduce stress and anxiety. This is especially true in cooperative games where students can express themselves creatively, develop social skills, and build emotional resilience alongside their peers while building a sense of community. Additionally, playtime also offers students an opportunity to regulate their emotions by experimenting with different roles, problem-solving, and practicing self-control in a safe and supportive setting. 

As adults, we need to have strategies to help create environments that get kids into a calm and alert state. By creating norms and expectations, creating de-escalation strategies (such as a repetitive motion like bouncing a ball and talking in soft voices), and creating opportunities for belonging, leveraging play to build social and emotional support rewires brains–and schools.

In schools, the quality of recess (e.g., physical and emotional safety, student engagement, adult engagement) matters. High quality recess significantly predicts elementary school student behaviors related to emotional self-control and resilience, according to research


How do you balance providing consequences for misbehavior at recess (taking recess away) and the need for play?

Clear communication of playground rules and expectations is key to limiting disagreements and misbehavior that can disrupt playtime. This starts with creating shared agreements or “group agreements” among students and staff that describe what safe and cooperative play looks, feels, and sounds like on the playground. 

An example of a playground group agreement could be: “I will be safe. I will be respectful. I will have fun.”

When a student’s actions are not aligned with these agreements, recess staff can use conflict resolution activities or redirect the student to a different game/activity. This will allow the student an opportunity to change their behavior without missing out on the positive benefits of play.

Play should not be treated as a reward to be revoked. If you ask a kid why play is important, they’ll often respond that it helps them get their energy out. We also know that it can be utilized to support their emotional regulation. Every kid should benefit from playing every day. By focusing on having peer leaders and adults in alignment on norms, de-escalation strategies, and developing relationships, kids can stay at recess and experience the support of their caring community when they’re struggling to meet certain behavior expectations at recess.


When increasing academic learning time is a focus, how do teachers help convince administrators to make more time for recess?

The benefits of play extend while beyond the playground and can be seen in students’ academic, social, and emotional well-being. There is a growing base of research that suggests physical activity can reduce the risk of depression in kids ages 6-13

By framing recess as essential for promoting physical, mental, and emotional health and acquiring life skills, teachers can collaborate with administrators to prioritize and allocate sufficient time for recess within the school day, ultimately benefiting students’ academic achievement and well-being. When kids play, they build relationships with their peers and adults, which helps create a supportive learning environment in the school and classroom. After all, play is the way kids learn.


What is the recommendation for recess minutes in a 7 hour school day for grades 1-5? How can you use play at school to support SEL and mental health?

Every kid should play every day. When considering the benefits of recess, the majority of research has focused on the impact on student physical activity, which has led to some states adopting standards for the number of minutes of recess per day, but this research didn’t look at the impact on student’s mental well-being. When it comes to mental well-being, an examination of recess quality and student behavior by Dr. William Massey & Dr. John Geldhof showed that a high-quality recess experience matters more than the number of minutes of play to reap the benefits on a child’s social and emotional well-being. So with whatever number of minutes you have per day, ensure that kids feel emotionally and physically safe, empowered, and engaged. If you’re looking for a tool to assess your recess, visit

Play experiences can also trickle into the lunchroom, assemblies, the classroom, and hallways, bolstering the benefits provided by recess, so if your students don’t have much time at recess, consider when else you might make playtime happen. Need ideas to help kids play? Visit Playworks’ Game Library.

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