As social and emotional learning (SEL) gains traction, it can start to feel like yet one more lesson to wedge in. Thankfully, building students’ social and emotional skills is about more than instructional time. The Aspen Institute’s Council of Distinguished Scientists and Council of Distinguished Educators now recommend weaving an intentional focus on students’ social, emotional, and academic development throughout the school day.
For 22 years, Playworks has helped schools do just that, and it is simpler than it sounds. Play is our best tool.
1. Play Helps Kids Take Academic Risks
Imagine: we are holding hands, trying to pass a hula-hoop down a row of people without letting go. In that goofy moment, we are fully present. We are also learning to trust; we can’t complete this ridiculous task alone.
The Council of Distinguished Educators emphasizes that kids must feel engaged and safe in order to take academic risks. When humans are absorbed in play, we take risks as a matter of course. We learn to feel safe trying new things. These low-stakes moments build the confidence kids need to take academic risks as well.
2. Play―and SEL―Can Happen Everywhere
Kids practice social and emotional strategies throughout the day from the classroom, to the hallways, to the cafeteria. We find that when we support safe, healthy play in each of those environments, students are naturally building their social and emotional skills.
Many teachers already use play in the classroom by introducing fun attention getters, playing games as a grouping strategy, and more. These playful moments help kids refocus and build social awareness. Outside of class, playful hallway transitions help kids internalize self-management strategies. At many Playworks schools for example, transitions include a high-energy cheer while students line up after recess followed by a few deep breaths to bring the energy down. To practice breathing deeply, students can use their imagination to “smell a flower” and then “blow out a candle”. Instructions like “walk like a ninja” or “put a bubble in your mouth and don’t let it out” keep the energy level low and help students refocus on the way back to class.
3. Recess Shapes School Climate
Designated playtime, like recess, lets kids practice social and emotional skills on their own. University of Pennsylvania researchers recently found that social and emotional learning and school climate are linked. At Playworks, we know that kids’ play at recess shapes both.
On our playgrounds, bullying is significantly lower than at similar schools, because we focus on what it feels like to be on the playground. We norm inclusion: anyone can join any game. We also introduce games like Everyone’s It Tag that work for all skill levels and ensure that no kid gets left out.
4. Play Gives Kids Ownership Over Learning
Consistently, we see that kids will pick up the strategies we introduce and run with them, not out of obligation, but because they work. Kids are intrinsically motivated to play. Tools for conflict resolution, collaboration, and kindness keep them playing together longer.
When kids use strategies like playing rock, paper, scissors to resolve small conflicts, suddenly they are practicing social and emotional skills without even realizing it. That learning, in turn, strengthens both school climate and academic engagement. Teachers tell us that when kids practice social and emotional skills during recess, the result is more collaboration and focus when they return to class.
5. Adult Engagement Helps All Kids Play
While all kids should benefit from play as an opportunity to build their social, emotional, and academic skills, not all do. I loved recess growing up, but I recently spoke with a friend who dreaded it. His family moved a lot, so he always felt like an outsider.
The desire to play is innate, but joining in requires relationship skills and a safe environment. Educators can use explicit instruction and consistent modeling to support both. As adults, we can teach the rules to common games and model positive communication. We can also play.
One study found that at schools where adults played with students at recess—even in simple ways, like by turning a jump rope—students experienced five times as many positive interactions with an adult on the playground. Playing together is a unique way to help all kids feel valued and included.
By prioritizing play, schools do more than deepen social and emotional learning: they bring out the best in every kid.
Photo: Students resolve a dispute at recess by playing rock, paper, scissors. (Marc Yu for Playworks)
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.