Stock Photo © Sergey Novikov

Learning recess games to improve relationships at school

Updated 16 October 2021
Published  1 February 2019

Six Simple Principles of Play

  1. Every kid has the opportunity to play….
  2. Kids get to choose to play and get to choose games that make them happy.
  3. Kids have the right tools to resolve playground conflicts on their own.
  4. Adults play alongside kids, modeling and supporting a culture of trust, positivity, and inclusion.
  5. Play is not treated as a reward to be revoked.
  6. Everyone is welcome to join the game, because playing together is a great way to build community.

Playdates and small get-togethers are a great time for kids to play with close friends. They can play with little bounds, creatively making up “games” and activities by building on each other’s ideas, as they imagine together. Such powerful experiences deepen friendships and strengthen friend groups. Wanting to maintain their friendship, kids are motivated to resolve the inevitable conflicts. Everyone invited plays together and has a wonderful time.

Some kids seek out their friend group for this imaginative and creative play at school recesses (amongst 20+ other kids), and that can be just fine, when they are intentional about inviting other kids (outside of their friend group) to join in. In contrast, welcoming others to play tag or other well-established games is much easier. Kids often don’t intend to hurt others’ feelings, but when kids aren’t intentional about being welcoming while at school, kids outside their friend group can become routinely excluded from connecting with others because “they don’t know the rules of our game.”

The rules of these imaginative games are usually arbitrary and can end up being unfair because they’re made up along the way. Amongst close friends attuned to each others’ feelings, these rules are not exploited by those favored, are tolerated by those disadvantaged, and are changed when unfairness abounds. When these games are played with others outside their friend group, these social graces about unfair rules might not be extended to those outside the friend group, and teachers supervising 20+ kids at recess will probably miss these nuances.

Perspective-taking can help kids think about the differences between the contexts of recess and playdates to understand the impact of the way they play in public vs. private settings. Kids in early elementary grades might struggle to understand and employ the nuanced social skills needed to be inviting to others during imaginative play at recess. They might benefit more from learning well-established recess games, and saving imaginative play for playdates with close friends.

Playworks offers a free guide to recess games with fair rules that are widely understood (and accepted) by kids. Childrens can learn with the games in this guide to tag using light “butterfly fingers”; give high fives and say “good job, nice try” when peers rotate to the back of the line in Foursquare; or play fun variations on traditional playground games—like Crossover Dodgeball, where the goal is to get everyone to the other side and no one is “out”. The PDF guide is organized by game type and has an index that can be useful for finding suitable games that are fun for your child, but their online Games Library can be even easier to use because it can be filtered for game type (e.g., “Recess Games” or “Tag Games”), group size, age, etc. Although the games guide certainly can’t solve every problem, it’s often a helpful tool for setting kids up with a few games they enjoy that are likely to play out well at recess.