Five Tips for Recess Success

Playground Slide

Ask many kids “What’s your favorite subject?” and they’ll say, “recess.” But for students with special needs, recess can be the most challenging time of day. Recess is hard for some children because they have trouble managing unstructured time. For others, delayed social skills can lead to exclusion or even bullying. Children with physical disabilities may be left out because playground facilities aren’t fully accessible, while those with sensitive nervous systems may be disturbed by loud playground voices and chaotic surroundings.

But there are steps schools can take to prevent bullying and make recess a happy, healthy and socially successful time of day for everyone. We’ve gathered some suggestions and information about what some schools are doing to address this back to school issue.

Help students plan for transition
Students with developmental disabilities and autism spectrum disorders often have difficulty moving from one activity to the next. Preparation and roleplaying may help. “Various studies suggest that rehearsing hypothetical situations beforehand reduces anxiety and helps special needs kids cope more effectively,” say the folks at Try talking about recess beforehand or even creating a social story to help your child anticipate the transition. Teachers can help by reviewing the day’s schedule and providing special cues for children who need them.

 Help students plan how they will spend recess period
If you’re a parent, familiarize yourself with all the options. Does the school have clubs or lunch bunches that your child can attend? If not, can you request that the school offer some? If you’re a teacher, consider creating a checklist of possible recess activities and make it available to all students.

Offer structured activities during recess
A recent study by Stephen Leff and J. Munro, PhD, “Bully-Proofing Playgrounds During School Recess,” found that “providing structured activities increased the rates of cooperative play among children. There was also less physical and rough play.” In other words, bullying behaviors during recess were minimized when students were actively involved in structured games and sports.

Train older students, peer buddies, volunteers and teaching aides for recess duty
At many schools, recess is a time when staffing is low. After all, teachers need breaks too. Yet, inadequate supervision can lead to bullying and aggressive behavior. If teachers aren’t available to supervise, make sure volunteers or school personnel who know how to support students with special needs, are providing good supervision during recess.

Adapt recess games so everyone can participate
According to Spark PE, many recess activities can be adapted so children with special needs and their typically developing peers can play together. For example, soccer, jump rope and softball can all be played in a style and with equipment that works for students of all abilities. For more information on adapting recess games, visit

Respect children’s needs for solitude and downtime
Whereas some students want badly to play with their peers, others may welcome the opportunity for some quiet time to decompress. If this is the case with one of your students, don’t insist he join the group. Allow him to read, play a game on his iPad, or walk around the playground. If playground noise is disturbing to him, allow him to wear noise cancelling headphones or listen to the music of his choice.