Recess Activities That Encourage Social and Emotional Learning

At Inside SEL, our mission is to act as a megaphone, amplifying the great work being done by leaders in education and social-emotional learning across the country.

Throughout the past few years, we have been incredibly fortunate to help build and interact with an amazing community of educators, administrators, researchers, parents, students, and other proponents of whole child educationMany of our readers will write to us with their own stories and opinions about the future of education, and we view it as part of our goal to help share high-impact stories with as wide of an audience as possible.

The following piece was authored by Charlie Fletcher, a freelance writer living in the pacific northwest who has a variety of interests including sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more.


Letting kids explore and use their imaginations through outdoor play is a wonderful way to help them develop social and emotional skills. Interaction with classmates, problem-solving together, and developing new relationships are all things that tend to happen more naturally through play than in a classroom setting.

But, not every child is comfortable in some of these social interactions. They might be shy or reserved and need a bit more structure when it comes to building their social skills.

With that in mind, consider getting everyone on the playground involved by putting together recess activities that encourage social and emotional learning. When everyone is able (and encouraged) to participate, it’s easier for kids to initiate conversations and build those important developmental relationships.

Let’s cover a few activities you can implement during recess to get everyone involved.

Recess Games

Both teachers and students alike consider recess a nice “break” in the day. It’s an opportunity to get some fresh air and de-stress for a few minutes before having to focus again. But, there are more benefits to recess than you might realize. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recess boosts the physical, emotional, and academic skills of children, and is something that should never be withheld.

One of the best ways to take advantage of those benefits is through some classic recess games, including:

  • Duck-Duck-Goose
  • Red Rover
  • Marbles/jacks
  • Capture the Flag
  • Mother, May I?

These games might feel a little “old school,” but they get back to the heart of what recess really is, and everyone can participate as a large group or break off into smaller groups, so they’re all included.

Playing Sports

If you want to get things more organized on the playground, encourage your students to play sports during recess. Put together teams for them or let them pick their own and bring out some equipment. Things like soccer balls, kickballs, and footballs are all easy and quick items that can be pulled out and stored away easily, and kids will usually gravitate toward them right away.

Sports are great for physical health, but they can also help to boost the mental health of kids by improving their mood, boosting cognitive development, and helping them to form social connections.

Playing sports can also help to develop leadership skills and teach kids how to work as part of a team. Those are skills that will carry over into the classroom and in relationships throughout their lives.

Encouraging Creativity

Not every student is going to be interested in sports. It’s important to have a few recess activities available so everyone can participate freely and comfortably. Some kids will benefit from more creative outlets, like coloring or doodling.

Doodling has been linked to positive mental health benefits like

  • Stress relief
  • Memory retention
  • Improved focus

By encouraging your kids to doodle and draw outside, you can take things one step further to improve their focus. Give them a “prompt” at the beginning of recess. Tell them to draw an animal, a type of food, or something they see when they look around the playground. Encouraging them to experience nature will also help to improve their mental well-being while boosting their social and emotional development.

Don’t minimize the positive impact recess can have on your students. It shouldn’t always be a “free-for-all” when it comes to letting your kids play, because not everyone gets to be involved that way. Instead, take the time to create recess activities that include everyone. Not only will you foster a more connected classroom, but you’ll especially help those shy or reserved kids to develop strong social and emotional connections – skills that will benefit them for a lifetime.

Categories SEL in K-12

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