Education Opinion

7 Unexpected Places Where Learning Happens

By Learning Is Social & Emotional Contributor — October 09, 2018 6 min read
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By Lauren Puzen

Kids’ physical, emotional, and social well-being are inseparable. Children with a strong social and emotional foundation are more likely to graduate high school, go to college, and fare better on measures of overall wellness. Creating a healthy school where students feel supported, connected and have opportunities to be active and eat healthy creates a foundation for academic success and social and emotional development.

The entire school day offers opportunities to support student health and wellness. In fact, often times non-traditional learning environments—such as the playground, cafeteria and afterschool programs—are the perfect settings to foster social and emotional development. That’s because how we learn doesn’t discriminate by where we learn.

This year, look for opportunities to support the development of the whole child in these unexpected places:


Physical education offers a unique platform to integrate social and emotional learning into the curriculum. According to national standards set forth by the Society of Health and Physical, physically literate individuals should exhibit responsible personal and social behavior as well as recognize the value of physical activity for self-expression and social interaction—all key pieces of social and emotional development. In order to create this environment, be intentional about incorporating games and activities that promote cooperation and teamwork.


By providing a safe and healthy space to play and connect with classmates outside of the typical classroom setting, recess is an ideal environment to support the development of social awareness, empathy, and healthy relationships. When recess runs smoothly, kids get their energy out in a constructive setting, and wake up their brains through physical activity and creativity to come back to the classroom calm and focused.

Try these tips to support whole child development on the playground:

#1: Add cooperative games to recess. Cooperative games can support healthy social emotional development by providing opportunities to learn teamwork, inclusion and problem solving.

#2: Build in Time for Reflection. After the cooperative game or activity, make time for reflection. This gives kids the opportunity to think about the activities they participated in and how their actions affected others, making them more self-aware.

#3: Incorporate Conflict Resolution. By practicing empathy during recess, conflicts are less likely to arise, but it still can happen! When potential disagreements do arise, encourage students to resolve their own conflicts using simple games like Rock, Paper, Scissors. These games teach kids ways to reduce escalation of an issue, and quickly come to a solution so everyone can move forward effectively and spend more time learning.


The cafeteria presents an opportunity to address students’ nutritional needs and their need for community and connectedness. The cafeteria can be a scary place; cafeteria staff can serve lunch and interact with kids so they feel welcome and connected to their school community. In addition, we know that food insecurity can cause emotional insecurity, and having access to healthy school meals and snacks can mitigate the issue and improve academic performance. Create a positive school meal participation culture where you are able to remove the stigma of school and afterschool meals by providing meals for all students regardless of economic status. Increase meal availability and access to state, local, and federal nutrition programs, including School Breakfast and the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program in elementary schools.

Furthermore, when students and staff sit together and chat over a meal, students benefit from the opportunity to develop friendships and deepen relationships. These are important social skills that can serve them for life.

Nurse’s Office

Having a welcoming nurse available to address students’ chronic health conditions is essential to keeping kids feeling valued and supported to thrive in the classroom, on the playground and in the cafeteria. Asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism—resulting in an estimated 10.5 million missed days of school per year. Kids with asthma and other chronic health conditions can feel isolated from their peers, due to their inability to participate in Physical Education or recess. A coordinated effort among school nurses and staff, especially Physical Educators and coaches, can keep kids involved, included and ready to participate.

Principal’s Office

Principals are key to creating a positive school climate in which students can develop socially and emotionally. With the right systems and strategies in place, such as PBIS, principals can have more time to engage in positive relationships with students and staff. For example, principal Mathew Portell from Fall-Hamilton Elementary is a mentor in the Check-In and Check-Out strategy, which encourages positive student-adult relationships and helps students create goals for improving their social emotional skills.

School Counselor, Psychologist or Social Worker’s Office

Student services staff are often stuck in a more reactive approach to student care. However, when other parts of the school environment are set up to support students’ physical, social and emotional needs, services staff have more capacity to proactively support students’ social and emotional development through mentorship and services such as one-on-one and small group sessions. Additionally, support staff can play a key role in developing the capacity of classroom teachers to create classroom environments that model healthy social and emotional skills. Finally, the school counselor can play a key role in giving staff a needed break to regulate their own emotions, by using strategies like Tap In, Tap Out.

Afterschool Programs

Afterschool programs can benefit everyone by fostering community connectedness, which is key to creating congruency in a child’s life. Afterschool staff can demonstrate inclusive cooperative physical activity by building in time to reflect, highlighting positive communication and respect, and using conflict resolution techniques and skills to build a safe and healthy environment. Your school’s commitment to the development of the whole child can be complemented by partnering with afterschool programs that are pursuing similar goals, such as the NRPA Commit to Health goals.

The bottom line: Learning happens everywhere in a child’s life! When we are intentional about each environment’s impact on students’ overall wellness, we can empower more young people to thrive.

Lauren Puzen is Strategic Partnerships Manager for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a national nonprofit working to empower schools, companies, community organizations and families to transform the conditions and systems that lead to healthier kids. Puzen has dedicated her career to addressing childhood adversity in the fields of social services, education and youth development. Puzen’s strategic and futuristic attitude to align these fields suits her well while pursuing national partnerships with experts in social emotional health and chronic health conditions.

The opinions expressed in Learning Is Social & Emotional are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.