If you ask young children, “What do you like most about school?” many yell, “recess!” Recess is a fundamental part of the elementary school curriculum because it allows children to grow physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually.

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Supervising Recess

Recess supervisors will be successful when they share a common understanding concerning the purpose of play during recess. For this to be sustainable, teachers, staff, interns, parent volunteers, before and aftercare program assistants – all must study and work together:

  • To observe playground activity,
  • Chart observations,
  • Report observations factually without interpretation,
  • Reflect and move toward interpretation together,
  • Suggest solutions,
  • Implement agreed upon suggestions,
  • Repeat the process: observe, implement, document, report, interpret, revise   solutions, and re-implement.

Recess staff need training to know which activities are appropriate, and they need to be empowered to redirect play when necessary. Play areas need to have posted signs of what is acceptable for each grade at recess, and a brief note on why.  Post a list of activities for each grade or for grades 1-2 or 3-4 if they are together on the yard. This supports new teachers and volunteers such as parents, intern practicum students, aftercare and before-care teachers, all who may be asked to supervise playgrounds during recess times.

Conflict is normal and healthy. At the start of recess (free play), as children begin to creatively form parameters around their play, there may be natural periods of tension or conflict. As long as these periods do not last too long, and as long as children do not consistently carry that conflict into the next class after recess, things are usually OK. Yard supervisors should try not to allow themselves to be drawn in to such conflicts. It can be challenging to remain in this middle ground, attentive to the students, yet not engaging actively with them outwardly. If conflicts continue longer than is healthy, then ask the students questions in order to help them navigate the situation, rather than imposing your ideas on the students.

Children at free play require the attention of knowledgeable and present adults. The active presence of even one mindful teacher on the playground will change the whole playground. Play will flow more fluidly. Take ball play, for example. Ball misuse is a wake-up call for teachers to increase playground mindfulness. Free play is a misnomer. Education towards freedom, a common tag line, does not imply a “free for all.”

The teacher must remain awake and responsive while on duty. If teachers show up only physically while mentally thinking about something else, such as what went poorly during their lesson and what they will do better or bring tomorrow, the children sense this. Some teachers use the time to chat with colleagues, or even schedule meetings with parents. Teachers need breaks, but recess duty is not a time for this.

For some teachers, the task of consistency in monitoring, or taking responsibility if they do not monitor, results in a decision to remove the activity. This is an easier solution although it deprives the children of important age appropriate development that may be difficult or impossible to provide in other activities. If the teacher has many activities for the children, this may not be an issue. However, the removal of activities due to lack of proper supervision is not pedagogically sound.

Ball Play at Recess

Balls are appropriate for all grades. They are tools for development, and like any tool, require guidance for proper handling. Balls are appropriate for lower elementary grades if they are thrown to each other, rolled to each other, bounced back and forth (not on the way to a basketball hoop). Balls may be balanced on a board held by two children, and then those children may learn to walk or run across a field while balancing the ball. A beach ball may be placed between two children and they may learn how to move together without touching the ball with their hands and without allowing it to drop. The Keep it Up activity provides an experience of levity, coordination, eye tracking, and aiming. There are a dozen of developmentally appropriate ball activities for grades 1 through 3, two dozen for grade 4 and three dozen in grades 5 and 6.  The best-loved of these ball activities will be shared at the upcoming conference.

Ball play should provide for social interaction and joy, because joy forms the basis for learning and memory development. Dexterity, agility, and rhythm are gained through the ball play. Creativity is the focus in the early grades, saving relays, races, point scoring, and competition for the middle grade years.  In the lower grades, the ball represents an element in a story: a fireball, a stork, or a planet for example. The relationship between the children is primary; the ball is secondary. The ball is only a medium for interaction.

It only takes a moment for unsupervised ball activity to devolve to the lowest common denominator, gravity. The ball falls to the ground and a child kicks it, or it is thrown toward a backboard. Competition emerges. We’d like to avoid competitive sports until middle school. When the teacher returns, or turns his attention back to the play after talking with a colleague or parent, now she must intervene.

When a school gets to the point of deciding to remove balls at recess, the problem may have begun long ago, as a lack of presence and/or to knowledge of what is developmentally appropriate ball handling for each grade. Whenever possible, redirect instead of blocking or removing options. If ball play has become inappropriate, it is often not the fault of the children, and they should not be punished for it. This is no easy task, but it is what is called for if a faculty wants to work mindfully with the developing child.

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Recess Activities

In addition to playground balls, recess can include playing with the following:

  • Stilts
  • Unicycles
  • Pogo sticks
  • Balance beams
  • Stumps
  • Trolleys (Buddy Walkers)
  • Marbles
  • Cat’s cradle strings
  • Jump ropes
  • Rola Bola
  • Diabolo
  • Juggling
  • Frisbee
  • Hula Hoops
  • Horseshoes (rubber)
  • Bocce ball
  • Crochet

Traditional children’s games still have a vital role on the playground:

  • Balance rope
  • Mohawk walk
  • Hop scotch
  • Four Square
  • Locomotor Track
  • Tetherball
  • Obstacle Course


Supervision involves presence, observation, knowledge, intervention, and redirection:

  • Being present on the play area (first to arrive, last to leave)
  • Direct observation, moment to moment, without distractions
  • Knowledge of developmentally age appropriate activities
  • The ability to intervene if necessary, either due to conflict, or non developmentally appropriate activity
  • The ability to redirect children toward appropriate activity

Supervision does not involve:

  • Arriving tardy, leaving early
  • Leaving the play area for any reason (bathroom, snack)
  • Being preoccupied with thoughts and failing to observe
  • Talking with other teachers, parents, or staff
  • Becoming over-involved with a child or small group of children so that you fail to see the whole field
  • Lack of knowledge concerning developmentally age appropriate activities
  • Failure to address conflict when necessary
  • Failure to redirect

When faculties work actively together, supervising school recess can become a rewarding process rather than a drudgery.

Other resources include PlayWorks, The Alliance for Childhood, The National Institute for Play.

Additional readings include: About the Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game by John Fox; “It’s Wrong For Schools to Be Banning Balls and Games During Recess” from Forbes Magazines, 2013.

© 2010 Edmund Knighton Used with permission. Contact the author at edmundknighton@yahoo.com.


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