Matt Harris, a principal at a Playworks school, 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 says. “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.”
CASEL identifies social awareness and relationship skills as two core competencies for social learning. When students are socially aware, they practice skills like inclusion, respect, compassion, and empathy. Relationship skills include conflict resolution, cooperation, playing fair, and playing with students from different friend groups or ages. Here are six ways you can help kids practice social awareness and relationship skills during recess.
Teach students to play in ways that are inclusive
For example, in a game of four square, set the expectation that whoever is serving will rotate out after three serves so that more students have a chance to play. Find tips on inclusion here.
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.
Play games that reinforce empathy
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.
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.
5. 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.
Agree on the rules
Elementary-aged children are learning to follow social norms and appreciate clear expectations. Display rules for popular recess games. Set the expectation that all students can join games like four square and jump rope to encourage students to interact with peers outside of their friend groups.
Find 156 fun games in our Life Skills Game Guide.
Includes everything from games you can play in a small space with no materials, to games you can play in a big group during recess. Search for games by age level, time/space/materials available, and by the life skills used (like problem solving or teamwork).
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.