Helping Children Join In and Play at Recess

By Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., author of the Learning About Me & You, Learning to Get Along®, and Being the Best Me!® series

Helping Children Join In and Play at RecessI remember the anticipation of the first day of school when I was in first grade, and again as a first-grade teacher and as a mother of six. In every situation, I hoped that the school year would be rewarding socially as well as academically. Children can be more focused on their work, improve their health and mood, and bond with their classmates through an unexpected and sometimes overlooked resource—recess.

Play is an essential aspect of a child’s day. Recess is a needed break from sitting and academic rigor. Though teachers often withhold recess to certain students as a means of discipline or for catching up on work, this punitive practice usually works against the student, and subsequently the class and the teacher as well.

Children usually return from recess more relaxed, agreeable, and focused. Those who are chronically deprived of this opportunity become further stigmatized because they miss the opportunity to socialize and get needed downtime. Important social connections can be fostered during recess, as can a sense of belonging with classmates. Recess can be the glue (along with lunch or snack time!) that can hold the rest of the day together for a child. As a parent, you may wish to find alternative solutions with your child’s teacher if your child is being held in at recess.

Once your child is out at recess, there can be other obstacles as well. Here are a few ways you can help your child or the children in your classroom.

Set the Environment
When children feel comfortable in their play environment, they are more likely to socialize and de-stress. Assess that you have adequate equipment for inclusive game playing. You might also teach or lead children in social games like tag or Duck, Duck, Goose that don’t require equipment.

Another popular idea is to designate a “friend bench” on the playground. Children can be instructed to sit there when they want to make a new friend or want to play something different. Instruct all children to periodically look over at the friend bench and include someone. Encourage children on the bench to join in when approached by another child with an invitation to play. This system can also be a signal to the teacher as to which children may need extra help joining in.

Share Your Expectations
Taking time before recess to talk about desirable playground behavior will help children know what to expect. Here are a few guidelines from Join In and Play that you might discuss and focus on in your classroom:

  1. I can listen and speak kindly.
  2. I can share and wait for my turn.
  3. I can play fair and follow the rules.
  4. I can show respect.

Brainstorm ways children might use these guidelines at recess. Talk about ways they can periodically switch positions and give others a turn, such as in four square or jump rope.

Helping Children Join In and Play at RecessPractice Role Plays
Role play is one of the most effective ways to help children learn social behavior. You can use it to teach and practice greetings, complete with eye contact and a smile. Practice lead-in statements or questions that engage other children, such as:

  • May I play?
  • Do you want to play?
  • That looks fun. Can I join you?
  • You’re good at that!
  • Would you like me to _____?

You might also role-play problem situations, where you demonstrate the problem behavior. Examples are being bossy, calling someone a mean name, taking something a child is playing with, or leaving in the middle of a game. Ask children to identify the problem in your approach. Then discuss courteous behaviors and solutions and let children role-play those with puppets or action figures. Later, they can role-play with one another.

Let children rehearse the part of a child wanting to join in as well as a child who is already playing. This can broaden their perspective as they will at times be in both roles. Also encourage children to give another child a compliment, compromise, or be willing to do what someone else wants to do.

Be Aware of Children Who Feel Isolated or Excluded
Talk with children individually about any problem they are experiencing, how they feel, and what can be remedied. Ask children privately what they like to play and who they might enjoy playing with. Be encouraging and help build the child’s confidence. Suggest other possible activities. Role-play how children might ask a particular child to play. If a child is consistently playing alone, you might also ask another child to invite and include the child playing alone in an activity to help break the ice.

Address Problems
When there is a problem on the playground, such as children being aggressive, unwilling to share, or showing poor sportsmanship, first remember to stay calm yourself. It’s sometimes necessary to separate children and give them some time and space to cool down. This can be done kindly but firmly. Then talk to children individually about their behavior. Help them understand how that behavior impacts their ability to play with others and make friends. Give those children small assignments to invite someone to play or find something that they can share.

Encourage Initiative
Playing at recess is very informal. The equipment is generally shared and doesn’t belong to a particular child. Sometimes it’s best for a child to just jump in, like in a game of tag or on the monkey bars or swings. Children should take turns, but they should also be encouraged to be assertive and to sometimes just start playing in the vicinity of others. Help children distinguish when it’s important to ask to join in and when they might get better results by just joining other children in a friendly way.

For many children, recess is a highlight of the day. Play involves skills, though. I’ve found that learning to join in and play is a long process, so don’t expect too much at once. As the year progresses, children can improve in their use of friendly speech and ability to learn the rules of games and can learn how to share, take turns, and play fair. Children also need some freedom to be themselves and sometimes just to observe or invent their own play. Having a kind adult on the playground will help children feel safe and able to relax and enjoy themselves. Over the years as I have watched children at play, I’m heartened that they often build bonds of friendship as well as their muscles.

Cheri MeinersCheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband David have six children and enjoy the company of their lively grandchildren. They live in Laurel, Maryland.

Free Spirit book series by Cheri Meiners:


Being The Best Me

Learning About Me and You

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