The playground is an essential part of every afterschool program. And while there’s no denying their physical benefits, playgrounds also offer many opportunities to build valuable social and emotional skills.

The playground is an essential part of every afterschool program. And while there’s no denying their physical benefits, playgrounds also offer many opportunities to build valuable social and emotional skills. As they play, students practice important skills like teamwork, sportsmanship, conflict resolution and empathy, which are useful inside and outside the classroom.

In a new study on recess, researchers analyzed nearly 500 playgrounds to develop a 17-point observational tool to evaluate and optimize the playground experience. We used this tool to share the following tips for building social skills and relationships on the playground:

1. Enforce inclusion

The playground should be a safe place where all students can play together, regardless of gender, ability, race or age (when appropriate). If the playground equipment doesn’t accommodate everyone, provide additional games and outdoor equipment to make sure every student has a chance to play. And if students decide to play an organized game, encourage them to choose games that include everyone. Enforcing an inclusive playground experience helps support positive social skill development in students.

2. Encourage positive communication

When it comes to encouraging prosocial behavior, a simple high five or “Good job” goes a long way. Acknowledge students’ efforts by giving a fist bump or saying something kind, such as “I like how far you kicked the ball!” when they participate. Encourage students to follow your lead by passing out high fives and cheering on one another as they play. Sportsmanship on the playground promotes a sense of belonging, which leads to higher engagement in the classroom.

3. Intervene when problem behaviors occur

Playgrounds have few or no rules in place, which means physical altercations and negative communication are likely to occur. This type of antisocial behavior may cause certain children to feel rejected and isolated from the rest of the group.

That’s why it’s important to keep an eye out for problem behaviors and intervene in a constructive way. For instance, when a problem occurs, you may issue a verbal warning and reinforce appropriate playground behavior. If it continues, those involved may be placed in a “time-out” location for a few minutes before being allowed to return to play. Adult intervention reminds students that the playground is a safe place where misbehavior is not accepted.

4. Teach conflict resolution

There are times, however, when conflicts can be resolved without adult intervention. Like, Who goes down the slide first? or Who gets to be team captain? In these instances, encourage students to use Rock, Paper, Scissors and similar conflict resolution techniques to work out simple playground conflicts on their own. Conflict resolution is a necessary skill to have, both in the classroom and in life. And the skills students learn and practice on the playground will be useful when conflicts arise in other areas.

5. Get involved!

All children like to play, but not every child feels safe or comfortable joining in. By actively engaging in play, you can ensure all kids feel valued and included on the playground. You can help students turn the jump rope or be the pitcher in a game of dodgeball. These small but positive interactions with adults not only support social and emotional development. But they also have the potential to transform student-teacher relationships.

 

A good amount of social and emotional learning takes place on the playground. And using these tips, students can learn valuable social skills as they play.