Recess is a time for students to let loose and simply enjoy being children for a while. It provides a crucial period of respite in a heavily structured routine that involves lots of sitting still and listening. It also plays an important role in children’s social-emotional learning.


The amount of daily recess for elementary school children has been a topic of debate in educational circles for years. Some schools reduced the number of recesses to place more emphasis on academic subjects. However, more and more educators are recognizing the importance of time on the playground for kids’ physical, emotional, and academic wellbeing.


Recess and physical movement play a big role in children’s development of social-emotional skills. This applies to both structured and unstructured periods of physical activity and recess, which we’ll examine individually. Whether gaining social-emotional techniques through direct instruction or resolving playground conflict on their own, children are always learning through play.


The Importance of Movement-Based Social-Emotional Learning

There are many ways to foster social-emotional learning (SEL), so Mindful Practices offers several. One of the primary ways is through movement. From in-class mindfulness workshops to hip-hop yoga assemblies, exercise is a key medium for SEL. These activities help students recognize the connection between mind-body wellness. They also give them time to practice breathing techniques that can be used to reduce stress.


Recess is another great time to incorporate activity into SEL curriculum. There are countless games for teaching SEL that work great as recess activities. These games help children learn how to collaborate, solve a conflict and build a supportive community. When students learn to empathize with one another, work together, and manage their own emotions, they’ll be less likely to bully one another. Mindful Practices offers models for movement-based mindfulness activities to use during recess. These provide students with a chance to take a deep breath, move their body, and recharge emotionally for the rest of the school day.

The Importance of Unstructured Recess in Developing SEL Skills

While we’ve talked about how important it is for students to engage in physical activities for SEL, this is not intended to serve as a replacement for unstructured recess. In fact, unstructured play is crucial to children’s social-emotional development.


In a report for NEA Today certified PE teacher Terri Drain argues that,“[children] need to be able to make up their own rules, to learn to get along with each other, to solve problems.” Organized sports or mindfulness activities are no replacement for this.


The playground is SEL in action. When students are let loose to interact with each other on their own terms, they have an opportunity to practice what they have been learning in the classroom. All five key SEL skills play out on the playground. Children are making decisions while practicing relational skills and social awareness. They also must manage their own emotions in response to the potentially chaotic nature of play. Observing unstructured recess can provide teachers with insight into how well their SEL curriculum is integrating itself into the students’ real life.


Both structured movement activities and unstructured recess play a big role in children’s social-emotional development. Establishing good SEL curriculum in the classroom will make sure students maintain a safe, collaborative environment on the playground.