You probably know the saying “you are what you eat.”

But did you know that you are also “how you play”?

When it comes to social and emotional learning (SEL), practice matters. When kids play, they are practicing social and emotional habits that will stick.


You probably know the saying “you are what you eat.”

But did you know that you are also “how you play”?

When it comes to social and emotional learning (SEL), practice matters. When kids play, they are practicing social and emotional habits that will stick.

That’s why we decided to create the SEL Game Guide. This guide draws on research of Playworks’ practices to help educators reinforce social and emotional learning through play.

Playtime and SEL

Play has always been part of how humans learn, so it is not surprising that many classic games support social and emotional learning as part of their inherent structure. For example, when kids play freeze tag, staying frozen is a way to practice controlling physical movement, which can help students develop self-management skills. When kids play soccer, they are practicing decision-making and teamwork.

Sometimes, the default strategies that kids use to address conflict or frustration while they play may not be the most effective. By noticing what happens during playtime and offering intentional support, educators can reinforce social and emotional skills that will serve kids well.

Research on Playworks’ recess-based approach shows strong evidence that playtime can be used to shape SEL outcomes (Rand Corporation, 2017). Schools and youth organizations using Playworks’ strategies create an environment at recess where students feel safe and included and hone their social and emotional skills through everyday practice.

Playworks interventions have been shown to decrease bullying behaviors at recess, increase student feelings of safety (Mathematica, 2013), and improve school climates (London, 2015). An intentional approach to recess can also decrease conflict on the playground and increase positive interactions between students and adults (Massey, et al., 2017).

Identifying Best Practices

Over the last few years, Playworks has collaborated with numerous researchers and leaders in the social and emotional learning field, including CASEL, Transforming Education, and The PEAR Institute, to learn more about how activities on the playground impact SEL.

We also conducted an independent review of the top SEL frameworks, identifying the most common skills mentioned. Then, we revisited research on our own program model to see what evidence we had to map these SEL skills to Playworks’ evidence-based strategies.

Through these efforts, we isolated a number of concrete practices that support both SEL and a positive culture during playtime. These practices can be grouped into three main categories:

  • Which games kids learn (and how games are taught)
  • How to manage space, equipment, and conflict on the playground
  • Encouraging adult participation and student leadership at recess

Introducing the SEL Game Guide

Our new SEL Game Guide shares games and effective practices for teaching games. It is designed to help educators use play to support social and emotional learning either out at recess or in the classroom.

In the SEL Game Guide, game facilitation tips provide tangible ways to practice and model SEL with youth. The guide breaks away from the theoretical and instead emphasizes practices that are easily implemented by adults.

Playworks strategies can be used to reinforce social and emotional skills like self-management, social awareness/empathy, decision-making, problem solving, and teamwork. Games in the game guide are tagged with these labels so users can quickly locate games to support a specific skill. These skills can be reasonably supported through either the games themselves or the way the games are taught and facilitated.

Many games in the guide provide good opportunities to shift the way students interact during playtime. Want to replace a culture of teasing with a culture of encouragement? Teaching (or reintroducing) a game like four square can create an opportunity to model and discuss the social skills that you’d like to see kids practice. For example, instead of saying, “You’re out!” make a point of saying, “Good job, nice try!” and giving a high five.

Some of the games in this guide may be challenging for students to play on their own. But games that are difficult at recess can be great to play in class. A collaborative strategy game like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” can be used to help a class reflect on teamwork strategies and get better at working together to accomplish a goal.

We hope that you find this new resource helpful in your lesson planning or recess supervising! For questions about our research or about SEL and play, reach out to


London, R., et al. (2015). Playing Fair: The Contribution of High-Functioning Recess to Overall School Climate in Low-Income Elementary Schools.” Journal of School Health, 85, 53-60.

Mathematica Policy Research (2013). Impact and Implementation Findings from an Experimental Evaluation of Playworks: Effects on School Climate, Academic Learning, Student Social Skills and Behavior.

Massey, W. et al. (2017). The impact of a multi-component physical activity programme in low-income elementary schools. Health Education Journal: Volume 1, Issue 14.

Rand Corporation (2017). Social and Emotional Learning Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act: Evidence Review. Santa Monica, CA:

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