8 Ways to Make Recess More Fun for Students with Autism

By Benjamin Farrey-Latz, author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up

8 Ways to Make Recess More Fun for Students with AutismIf you were to poll students in elementary school classrooms with the question, What is your favorite part of the school day?, I can almost guarantee that the top answer would be . . . (drumroll please) . . . recess.

Of course that’s not really a surprise, because it’s generally the least-structured time of the school day, a time when students can just do what they want to do and play.

However, the unstructured nature of recess can also be a source of anxiety for some children, including children with autism, who prefer more structure throughout their day. To be clear, this is not true of all children with autism. Many of the children I’ve taught have been perfectly happy to go out to recess and play by themselves or join in and play with others.

So how can we help children with autism, and children with anxieties about times that are not as structured, enjoy recess?

  • Take students outside as a group during a time when other classes are not outside and explore the options that will be available at recess. Many classes have a morning meeting, and this could be an activity for one of your morning meetings early in the school year.
  • Have peers model use of different playground equipment.
  • Practice games you might play at recess. The school I currently teach at has set up a “game of the week” program in which students learn a game in their classroom on Monday and then the game is offered as a choice at recess the rest of the week. Some games may need to be modeled and taught on the playground. (See the Playworks bullet point below for a link to a resource with several games to play at recess.)
  • Watching videos of children modeling appropriate recess behaviors can also be helpful. If you have media releases for students, make videos of children using the playground equipment or playing games at recess and then watch the videos during your morning meeting or other social skills lesson times. This way, the videos are specific to your school.
  • Specifically for students with autism, you could write a social story about recess that is specific to your school and includes instruction about boundaries, areas where children can play, games they might play, and rules for recess time.
  • Pair up students with autism with “recess buddies.” The child with autism is paired with a peer who will play with the student at recess and model appropriate recess behaviors (asking to play, following the rules of a game, taking turns, sharing, etc.).
  • Some schools use programs such as Playworks to help teach children a variety of games and provide structure at recess. Playworks sends out coaches who work with all students. Its website also provides a list of games to teach at recess.
  • Responsive classroom provides a format to teach recess to your whole class.

Adults will probably need to provide more support early on, including support for students with autism, to help them stay with a partner or a group, and for peers, to encourage them to include students with autism in play. Ideally, you will be able to pull back on that support as students become more independent in playing at recess.

These are just a few ideas of how to make recess awesome for everyone! Please add any other ideas you have in the comments section below.

Benjamin Farrey-Latz is a special education teacher at Jefferson Community School (grades 2–6) in the Minneapolis School District. He has worked in education since 1996 in private, public, and charter schools as both a general and special education teacher. After working several years at the elementary level, Benjamin completed his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. His thesis focused on methods of teaching social skills to children with special needs.

I Can Learn Social Skills! Benjamin is the author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up.

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