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Recess Behavior Management


Recess should be a time for active play, fun with friends and a break from the rigors of the classroom. While all those things can and do happen, recess also brings its own challenges. Sometimes, students run into problems on the playground. Issues such as aggressive behaviors, risk-taking, bullying and other problems can crop up. Some kids have a hard time taking turns or may not engage with others.

There is no question negative behaviors are an issue. By third grade, 47 percent of kids say they have been bullied, and any negative recess behavior can have a negative impact on students. Every school wants positive experiences to come from recess, but negative behaviors and budget cuts have become such a serious issue that 40 percent of school districts in the country have reduced recess time.

There is another, equally serious, problem. When bullying and negative behavior grab teacher resources and headlines, kids who do exhibit respectful and polite play may not get much attention. This is probably not the message we want to send to children who exhibit positive behavior.

Most schools want the focus to be on positive behavior, so there is more of it. One way to do this is with recess behavior management techniques that promote great play while also addressing negative behaviors and their underlying causes if necessary. This dual-pronged approach ensures all children get heard and can give schools the best chance of creating positive change.

Good recess behavior management is an important part of any break time at school. A solid plan can prevent some of the most common challenges in the schoolyard and turn school breaks into fun and enriching experiences for more students.

Steps for Effective Recess Management

Improving playground behavior starts before any issues arise. In fact, proper recess management cannot begin by focusing on the negatives. Schools and administrators need to be prepared to reward good play at the same time as they approach any corrective measures. Keeping on good behavior shows everyone what the goal is and ensures children who do the right thing are recognized and rewarded for it, so they are encouraged to continue on the same path.

Teachers and school administrators can take proactive action when they do the following.

  1. Create Staff Guidelines

School staff is there to monitor recess and make it fun and safe for everyone, but they need support, too. Guidelines give teachers and staff the tools they need when managing recess and also encourage them to address issues in a consistent manner.

Before setting staff guidelines for recess, you should address the extent of the problems encountered during this outdoor playtime. Create a committee to discuss recess best practices. In meetings and through observation, this team can evaluate the number of recess incidents, the number of good behaviors seen and any other pertinent data.

Information gathering before setting rules can be eye-opening. It can reveal, for example, many students behaving well on the playground and an undue focus on a few minor infractions. It can also uncover a few isolated concerns, perhaps centered around specific playground spaces or a specific group of students. Simply taking another look and working with those individuals or areas while rewarding the well-behaved students can have a tremendous impact. At the very least, data-gathering can give some insights into the types of recess rules a school may need to have.

How Staff Can Respond to Common Problems at Recess

Once the scope of the problem has been addressed, it is time to create guidelines and rules for recess. Staff guidelines should include:

  • Definitions of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors: What behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable on the playground at recess? Try to offer helpful and precise guidelines. For example, you may decide you will not tolerate teasing. If this is the case, define “teasing” so staff can identify exactly when undesirable behaviors occur.
  • Outlines of consequences for inappropriate behaviors: Give staff the ability to impose consequences for children who persist in breaking the rules. This may mean reducing privileges or giving a timeout. Indicate when staff can voice a verbal warning and when they should consider stricter measures and even parental involvement.
  • Suggest rewards for good behavior: Positive reinforcement is a great way to get more kindness and good behavior on your playground, instead of just focusing on the problems. Give students verbal praise or other rewards when they display the behavior you want others to model.

  • An idea for a timeout: When children need some focus or a reminder, have an area set aside for timeouts. After giving a verbal warning or two, staff may place students in a timeout area for a specific number of minutes, so they lose some playtime. The timeout space should be the same each time and should be visible so monitors and staff can keep an eye on students who are in timeout.
  • Monitor games and recess: Proper monitoring of group games can ensure students are reminded of the rules and are gently nudged in the right direction if they get off track. If there are some areas of the playground where recess problems especially tend to happen, it may be useful to consider why incidents occur in that area and either place additional supervision there or address any underlying concerns.
  • Guided games and activities: Sometimes, friction occurs on playgrounds because some students feel consistently excluded. In this situation, it can be useful to have guided games or activities at recess. Instead of allowing students to play completely on their own, have monitors and staff arrange teams randomly by names, birthdates or some other method, so everyone gets to play, and no one is picked last consistently.

Rules for the Recess Staff

While many recess rules focus on students, staff and monitors should have rules, too. This supports monitors and staff in creating the best possible situation. It can also be encouraging for students to see adults have to follow regulations, too, and restrictions are not just imposed on children.

A “we are all in this together” attitude can inspire everyone to get involved in creating the best recess experience possible for everybody. Staff rules can include saying “please” when asking students to do something, for example, or a requirement for staff and monitors to learn all students’ names so children can be addressed by their names.

How to Draft Staff Recess Guidelines

When coming up with staff guidelines, it is useful to hold a meeting or work with the recess committee to come up with instructions. This can lead to a good discussion about what teachers and staff need to create the best recess experience. What rules do staff, teachers and monitors think need to be included? Keep everyone focused on both positive behaviors to reinforce and actions to address.

Getting multiple voices in the conversation ensures you come up with a personalized management plan that addresses both the best and most challenging aspects of recess at your school. You may also realize the problem is not entirely with students:

  • Perhaps teachers have noticed the playground equipment is too outdated, and this leads to student boredom.
  • Perhaps there is too little equipment or too few staff supervisors during recess.

Just getting input about these concerns and making a few adjustments can make recess a whole new experience.

When drafting guidelines, consider writing two sets, one a more detailed set for staff and teachers and one a simplified list for students. Students may not be able to absorb pages of rules and will probably react best to a few easy-to-remember and clear instructions. While staff and student rules should say the same thing, keep the student version age-appropriate and highly digestible for younger readers.

It can also be useful to give students a voice. Ask them to picture what it feels like to be affected directly by less-than-ideal playground experiences. Listen to students when they discuss their recess experiences and their impact. Get a sense of what students need to be at their best. What supports can you give the students who already model the best behaviors to ensure they feel heard and recognized?

  1. Train Playground Staff and Monitors

Once you have staff guidelines, go over them with staff, teachers and anyone else who supervises during recess. Monitors and supervisors should understand what behaviors to look for and how to respond. Where possible, place supervisors and monitors in mock situations where they are asked to make decisions on the spot. This lets you evaluate how well the rules work in action. Are they clear enough? Are there any grey areas where it may not be clear to staff what “aggression” or “teasing” or “good behavior” looks like?

You may find the rules need more tweaking if they are incomplete, unclear or just not a good fit. Training with monitors and staff lets you test the rules in action. Before you try to implement your playground rules, you can notice any challenges. Are monitors focused on negative behaviors and having trouble rewarding positive recess play? Is everyone consistent with verbal warnings and negative consequences? Children who feel a consequence is “unfair” may not react well, and this can lead to more undesirable recess behavior.

Training is usually most effective when it is interactive, so consider getting staff and monitors together to discuss how to address students who misbehave or behave well. Go over unique situations, extenuating circumstances and other ideas to make everything as clear as possible for monitors:

  • Do they know when and how to contact the principal or parents?
  • Do they know how to address the best behaviors they see?

The goal is to ensure responses to specific behaviors are consistent and right for your playground.

  1. Teach Students About the New Rules

Bringing new rules to recess is a big deal, and children need some time to learn the new regulations and get a chance to get them right. You want to set students up for success, so they find it easy and pleasant to behave in desired ways. When students feel it is easy for them to succeed, they may be more likely to try.

Start by discussing recess behavior with students verbally and explain why they are important. Go over the rules of various playground equipment and game rules first. You will find it harder to teach children about how to play well together if they are not clear on the rules of using the slide or the swings, for example.

Once students understand rules of the playground in general, it is time to take a closer look at the recess rules you have created and have trained with your staff. Talk to students, so they understand how the rules can protect them when they go into effect and give the students a chance to ask questions.

When you make this experience interactive and let children understand the reason for the rules in a way that makes sense, kids may be more likely to follow the new standards. They will not be a random list of “to dos” but rather something the students have had a chance to go over and sit with for a while in a way that makes sense for them.

Post the Rules for Recess Behavior Management

Print out the new recess rules and post them near the play area and send a copy home to parents. Post the rules in the classroom, too. You want them visible for frequent referral. When posting rules, use an attractive sign and highlight key words or use short, punchy language to engage students and get them reading and looking at the recess best practices. When discussing rules, clearly explain the consequences for both good and negative behavior.

Act Out Proper Behavior for Students

Have teachers and monitors model the behavior. Instead of just verbally telling students, have students act out both positive and negative recess behaviors and discuss why you will encourage and discourage these behaviors on the playground. Discuss consequences and what children think they should do when they see different types of situations.

Head Off Common Problems on the Playground with a Trial Run

Have a trial run out in the play area and be sure to praise students when they show they understand the rules. Keep the trial run in the area where students have recess since this will help students practice their new skills in the very place where they will be asked to follow the rules.

After the trial run, you can start implementing the rules permanently. By the time you officially begin the new recess practices, students will have had a chance to raise any concerns and had the opportunity to get used to the new ideas and even to practice, so you set them up for success.

  1. Offer Rewards for Good Behavior

When handing out rewards and negative consequences, consider whether to hand out classroom-based rewards or individual rewards. Individual rewards only reward the one child who has demonstrated good behavior. Classroom-based rewards benefit an entire class, which facilitates teamwork and community.

When a school rewards an entire class, it encourages students to support each other to be their best. It may create a sense of student cooperation on the playground and get them to follow the rules in the spirit of competition, even. It can also offset any accusations of “teacher’s pet” and give students who struggle to act their best on the playground the experience of being rewarded, which can motivate them to try.

If you decide to offer classroom-based rewards instead of individual ones, it can be useful to monitor the rewards. Try these ideas:

  • Hand out tickets or tokens to kids who do well on the playground or show kindness.
  • Make a large visual representation of all the experiences on the playground. Include a meter with gold stars for every good recess for each classroom and offer the class a special event or treat once kids accumulate a certain number of stars.
  • Implement a recess wall where students can write down the good things they did during recess and the ways they acted their best. Once the class fills the wall, offer them a reward.

Treats for classrooms can include watching a movie in class, a class trip or an extra recess. Or give free time in class where kids get to play games.

Finding the Cause of Common Problems with Recess

Keep in mind that sometimes negative behaviors need to be addressed by examining underlying causes. For example, when bullying occurs, it is important to offer support to the student who is a target and also gauge what may be causing the bullying to occur. Is the child exhibiting the behavior having a difficult time expressing themselves? Are they struggling with problems or feelings staff can help to address?

If children act aggressively, consider whether they are aware they are behaving in a way that negatively impacts others:

  • They may have a difficult time with impulse control. Talking about how aggression makes others feel and modeling correct behavior may be very useful.
  • Some students have a hard time regulating emotions, and this can make it hard for them to share or to play a game. It may be useful to point out that others like playing with good sports and people who share.
  • Acting out good practices together, such as asking, “May I go next on the slide, please?” combined with some positive rewards and reinforcement, can curb emotions.

It can also be useful to give children other ways to express overwhelming emotions. Sometimes, putting words to feelings can be beneficial. If a student can learn to say, “I feel upset and impatient, and that is okay, but sharing makes others feel better so I can feel better,” the act of labeling the emotion and thinking of others can calm down a situation. Quiet areas of the playground and exhibiting art to express emotions can also be helpful.

Improving Playground Behavior by Working Together

If a student has a difficult time using the equipment, it may be a good idea to get parents involved to ensure there is not a deeper issue that may need to be addressed by a doctor. Give a struggling student extra time on the playground alone with a caregiver, so they can practice until they feel more comfortable using the playground equipment when others are around.

For some students, social skills may be an issue. It may be hard for them to share turns or to even play at recess with others. Poor social skills are one of the most common problems on the playground and can make it hard for a child to connect with others.

Ask teachers to add social-skills-building activities, such as group projects, to build those skills. Practice good social skills together in made-up scenarios. For example, students can practice what to say when they meet someone new or want to join a game.

When trying to get the best behavior possible from your students, be careful about focusing on the behavior you want children to display. It can be easy to get stuck on the “problems” you may see, but it is essential to reward positive behaviors as much as or even more than addressing negative behavior.

When you place more emphasis on positives, students learn good practices from each other. Students see positive attention is more pleasant, and they may want to experience it for themselves and act their best. In addition, rewarding students who act appropriately or kindly enforces that positive behavior in them. Kindness and good behavior are contagious. The more they happen and the more focus you put on them, the more they tend to occur.

Playground Design for More Effective Recess Management

You can address many common problems at recess with smart rules and communication between everyone involved. However, playground design can also spur kids to get along and play together with greater kindness while also reinforcing good playground behavior strategies.

While you may not think about playground design when considering common problems at recess, design elements can have a big impact in helping to build a harmonious play space for everyone. Poor design can make frustration more prevalent, and this can lead to conflict or aggression. The wrong types of play equipment can also break down communication while the right pieces encourage creative, cooperative play and a fun time for everyone at recess.

When designing a new recess area, you may have carte blanche to create the best design possible. Even if you already have a play area, recognizing the elements of good design for recess can allow you to make adjustments, so your students do their best every school break. There are five main elements you can add to your schoolyard to promote harmony at recess.

  1. Design a Playground Layout to Ensure Good Visibility

Make it easy for staff and monitors to see all areas of a playground at all times to ensure proper supervision. Eliminate unsupervised areas where children can accidentally end up hurt or where undesirable recess behavior can take place. Keep good sight lines for all play equipment and avoid closed-off areas where visibility may be poor.

Good supervision can:

  • Discourage many types of negative behavior
  • Encourage good behavior
  • Ensure monitors and staff stay aware of any issues they should address

If there are areas where visibility is naturally bad due to the terrain or the structure of the school building, you may need to take countermeasures. Get more monitors or staff to ensure all areas of the property are covered or make other changes to allow you to monitor all children at all times.

Another way to ensure good visibility is by reducing glare. Using shade structures and canopies above playground equipment can keep students more comfortable. Proper shading makes it easier for staff and monitors to keep track of children at play.

  1. Invest in Age-Appropriate Playground Equipment

Consider the ages of students and get play equipment appropriate for this age group. You want children to play on the equipment without getting frustrated, especially since frustration can lead to aggression. In a school, you may need to look for equipment that covers a wide range of ages. For example, the AeroGlider™ is an inclusive glider for ages two to twelve, so students in younger and older grades can use it.

  1. Choose Equipment That Encourages Non-Aggressive Play

Look for play equipment that will prevent conflict naturally. It should be non-aggressive and neutral. For example, play equipment like the Rhythm Spinner is a positive choice, since it allows children to express themselves through music.

  1. Integrate Play Equipment Designed to Encourage Cooperative Play

When designing or updating the playground, look for pieces that encourage children to work together as a team. When children work together in play, this can smooth over disagreements that can occur during recess. Using teamwork-based play equipment, kids learn social skills that can make playground time easier and more harmonious.

When looking for cooperative play activities and equipment, consider inclusive design for your playground. Trying to include separate playground equipment or areas for children with disabilities can isolate these children. Instead, you want play equipment children of different ages and abilities can enjoy at the same time, so no one feels left out.

At Playworld, we offer a wide selection of stand-alone pieces, components and full playgrounds that can be used to create an inclusive playground design. Our website even has a guide for educators, administrators and other decision-makers to create collaborative and inclusive playgrounds.

  1. Plan Equipment Placement Carefully

Spacing out the play equipment correctly and offering more room around larger playground items will encourage good play behaviors. Things such as slides and swings, especially, need a little extra room. Additional space ensures children do not become aggressive because of limited space or enter a conflict by bumping into each other accidentally.

When designing your play area and recess space, create an area where you will not get too many students in one place. This may mean identifying the “coolest” pieces of equipment and spacing them apart, or it may mean creating separate and equally interesting areas of play. It may also mean spreading out your play area instead of trying to create a play space with a smaller footprint.

Measuring your play equipment and space is a good start. Be sure to consider the play equipment you bring into the recess space and take into consideration manufacturers’ suggestions for clearance areas. Sketch out a plan and measure to determine how you will space everything and where all the pieces can go.

If you need guidance on planning and design, we have guides to get you started and a team that can help you to design the perfect inclusive playground for your school.

Design Your Next Inclusive Playground With Playworld

If you want a terrific, fun and inclusive playground that lets your children be their best while they engage in enriching activities, take a look at Playworld. When you work with us, you enjoy:

  • Extensive experience: Playworld has been in the play business since 1971, and generations of children grow up with our play equipment. We have worked with thousands of schools, communities and organizations to bring play to children all over the nation.
  • Exemplary support: We do not just offer play equipment. At Playworld, we support you every step of the process, from assessing your needs to providing you with ideas for inclusive play to supplying options for financing, so you can make your dream come to life.
  • A community and nation-wide commitment to play: We partner with non-profit groups, government agencies and other organizations to bring play to more children. When you work with us, you can rest assured you are working with a company committed to helping children play better.
  • Safety and quality: We work with experts to keep playground equipment safe. All our products are made from quality materials and receive engineer input to meet or exceed all relevant safety standards.

At Playworld, our playground equipment includes all the pieces you need for recess. We have electronic play equipment, equipment for young children, equipment for school-aged children, fitness equipment for children and adults ages nine and older, site accessories and more. We introduce loads of new products, and we have equipment meant to inspire sensory experiences, enrich play activities and encourage active play.

Many of our pieces are designed to encourage childhood development, including physical, cognitive, emotional and social skills. You can choose from stand-alone equipment, play components and full playgrounds, so you can create the recess space you want. You can even build in phases, so you can slowly add to your play space and pay gradually while staying within your budget. Choose from innovative designs or classics such as climbers, slides and swings. It is up to you.

Explore Our Resources and Begin Planning Your New Playground Today

Since we are serious about offering not just play components but also an overall play experience, we have a number of resources available. Our play experts are always available if you want to chat, and we also have resources related to recess, design, financing, planning, inclusive play and more.

We have you covered, whether it is your first time putting together a play space or you need just a little extra guidance. We have reports you can learn from and even offer customizable computer-aided designs that can put together plans and presentations to get everyone on board with the new recess area.

Your students deserve the best possible play space and recess experience. To make it happen, contact the Playworld play experts today to learn how we can help you put together an inclusive playground where you can promote the best recess behavior.


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