The playground is a natural setting for children to develop skills needed to engage in social interaction. It’s one of the first places children learn to make friends and play freely with other children. Undoubtedly, a conflict will make an appearance in these interactions; even between the best of friends. It can take on various forms — misunderstandings or mixed signals, arguments over rules, physical and verbal aggression, isolation, or targeted harassment disguised as play to name a few. Schools and attending adults have forever been frustrated by this because they feel too much time is spent putting out fires or solving problems for students. Teachers often feel the effects back in the classroom. Each year teachers strive to figure out new and better ways to lessen or eliminate conflict during recess.
Research shows that conflict on the playground occurs significantly less than positive interaction (although it may not feel this way to the adults on the playground.) Still, it is going to happen anywhere children are gathered and involved in free play. It’s human nature to disagree. However, daily experience with conflict brings opportunities for students to learn how to resolve it. The real consideration becomes how to manage playground conflict or drama successfully.
Conflict resolution or peaceful playground initiatives are not new. Schools have a wide variety of established programs from which to choose. What is new is the intentional focus on social-emotional learning during the school day. States are adding SEL standards, and programs to district requirements and teachers are integrating social-emotional components to their lessons. Regardless of name or structure, one aspect all of these programs have in common is teaching students to communicate respectfully and resolve conflicts on their own. Here are some questions and actions to think about as your school’s playground/recess program gets underway.
Define Recess. What does it look like at your school? What activities are available? Are there enough choices? Do they stay the same all year? Are they inclusive enough? These questions should be answered by the students, staff, and parents. A school-wide survey can uncover valuable information.
Adopt a protocol. Set up a program with clear expectations and stick with it. Use the program with fidelity. Give it a chance to work. Switching program models or protocols every year can be very confusing for kids and adults.
Engage Everyone. Students, recess staff, lunchroom staff, teachers, parents, engineers, after-school personnel, security, and community partners all should be included in student achievement and the mission of the school.
Plan. Create a detailed schedule to ensure coverage and consistent child to adult ratio. As students are learning and practicing resolution strategies, adults need to be available to assist every day.
Student Voice. Conflict manager or junior coach positions empower students. Younger students benefit from positive interaction and mentoring by older students. Leadership skills build confidence and civic responsibility.
Teach EI. Emotional Intelligence is predicted to be in the top 10 most preferred job skills by 2020. Focusing on EI should take place in the classroom and on the playground. Students need explicit instruction in identifying and managing their own emotions and being aware of the feelings of others. Games, role playing, and consistent modeling and practice should build from year to year.
Empowerment. Teach students specific vocabulary and strategies. Common language, resolution strategies, and protocol should be taught, understood, and practiced consistently. These are the tools students can keep with them on and off the playground. Children are learning new information daily. They rarely understand ideas without talking through them and trying them out. Vocabulary and strategies should be visible in the school and on or near the playground.
As 21st-century classrooms and jobs evolve, teamwork, problem-solving, interpersonal skills, and creative thinking are increasingly valued. The playground seems like a perfect place to hone emotional and social skills.
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