Help kids practice social skills throughout the day, not just in class.

What happens when you approach the entire day as a lab for social learning?

Matt Harris, a principal at a Playworks school, noticed, “In the classroom, time is structured; it can be hard to gauge empathy or lack thereof in quieter kids. During recess, all students have a voice and all students want to play, whether or not they speak up in class. They demonstrate social and emotional development by how they play together . . . or don’t.”

CASEL identifies social awareness and relationship skills as two core competencies for social learning. Principal Harris sees recess and playtime as important social learning opportunities.

“By tackling empathy at recess, we aren’t just hoping that kids will practice it. We know they do, because we see the difference,” he shared. “Kids are playing more inclusive games, listening to each other, and solving conflicts quickly so the group as a whole can get back to playing.”

Here are six ways you can help kids practice social awareness and relationship skills during recess.

Build Social Awareness:

When students are socially aware, they practice skills like inclusion, respect, compassion, and empathy. To encourage social awareness:

  1. Teach students to play in ways that are inclusive. For example, in a game of foursquare, set the expectation that whoever is serving will rotate out after 3 serves so that more students have a chance to play. Find tips on inclusion here.
  2. Model positive social skills. Join students in a game at recess. Lead by example. Offer high fives, use positive language, and encourage students with a “good job, nice try” when they rotate out. Children will take their social cues from adults.
  3. Use games to teach social skills. Build social awareness through games that encourage students to take the perspective of others, to walk a few steps in someone else’s shoes, or to collaborate as a team. Try​ Fake Out or Hi, My Name Is.

Build Relationship Skills:

Relationship skills include conflict resolution, cooperation, playing fair, and playing with students from different friend groups or ages. To help students practice relationship skills:

  1. Teach Rock, Paper, Scissors for conflict resolution. Playing Rock, Paper, Scissors teaches students to resolve disagreements in a way that feels fair without adult intervention.
  2. Teach games that encourage cooperation. Three-lines Basketball teaches the skills used in traditional basketball, but children must cheer on their teammates and work together.
    See it in action.
  3. Agree on the rules. Elementary-aged children are learning to follow social norms and appreciate clear expectations. Display rules for popular recess games on the playground. Set the expectation that all students can join games like foursquare and jump rope to encourage students to interact with peers outside of their friend groups.

Want more help building social skills at recess?

Our professional development workshops help teachers and recess staff use games, attention getters, and other hands-on tools to help kids build social skills through play.

More Resources


May 9, 2018

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Whether it’s snow, rain, smog, or cold, weather can put a wrench in recess. Playworks is here to help. This toolkit draws on our 20 years of experience on playgrounds and is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Kids need physical activity every day, and they are healthier when they get to play outdoors. Fresh air, sunlight,…

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The Rise of the Recess Team ›

At an elementary school outside of Sacramento, CA, the recess team clusters around four different pieces of butcher paper, drawing maps for TK kindergarten, primary, and upper-grade recesses and for the after-school program recreation time. This is the second day of a two-day recess deep dive, and the group is taking a fresh look at…