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How Recess Can Build Empathy And Other Skills

It has been found that children with a strong social and emotional foundation are more likely to graduate high school, go to college, work in the corporate world and generally fare better in life.

While people may not always think of non-traditional learning environments as places for children to develop knowledge and important life skills, the truth is that places like the school playground during recess, the cafeteria during lunch and afterschool programs are actually the perfect settings for this kind of learning. Where and how children learn matters greatly when it comes to their social and emotional development.

Recess provides the right time, optimum space and environment for kids to learn social awareness skills, giving them the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with classmates, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Recess creates an opportunity for children to play games and activities that support social awareness, cooperation and teamwork.


Tips for Building Empathy Skills

Four tips for planning your recess in order to support empathy skill-building. 


1. Add Cooperative Games to Recess 

Cooperative games are fun activities that promote inclusion, problem solving and teamwork among children, and could range from board games to PE games to digital online games and more. These games are all based on the principle that it can be just as much fun to play with each other than against each other. Competitive games often emphasize individual achievement, whereas cooperative games emphasize the joy and productivity that comes from working together to achieve a group goal. 


2. Build-in Time for Reflection 

After any cooperative game, build in time for some reflection. Reflection time is a great way to allow children to summarize, discuss and share their experiences about the game. Teachers can utilize this time to encourage positive behaviours they notice throughout the game and encourage children to do the same. This is also a good time to discuss any “pinches” or “crunches” that might have come up for students if inclusion was not practiced.   


Practicing this kind of reflection during recess helps children to develop reflection as a learning habit. By developing reflection, children learn the skill of assessment. This helps to accelerate their progress as it gives them the ability to think about how to improve, and therefore consistently produce their best work. By reflecting on incidents during recess, a child can learn to show genuine empathy and then compassion; understanding how classmates feel when they are hurt allows children to not only feel another person's pain but actually try to soothe it.


3. Incorporate Conflict Resolution 

Conflicts are less likely to arise or be better handled by practicing empathy during recess. In any type of conflict scenario, it is essential that children learn to understand the feelings of their classmates. By understanding and embracing empathy, children automatically show their ability and willingness to resolve conflict. Consider implementing some conflict resolution techniques when you notice conflicts arising among children. 


4. Recess is The Perfect Place to Check For Understanding

It becomes harder to gauge empathy in quieter kids in a classroom setting where time is structured and scheduled. During recess, all students have access to open space to exhibit their desire to play (whether or not they speak up in class) and demonstrate emotional and social development by how they choose to play together.


By tackling empathy at recess, kids are able to start practicing it. During recess, kids get more chances to play inclusive games, listen to each other, and solve conflicts quickly so the group as a whole can get back to playing.


Empathy is An Academic Skill, As Well As A Life Skill


When students reflect on how their actions impact others during recess, they learn firsthand about cause and effect, which are the cognitive skills that form the basis of modern learning. At the school level, especially during recess, promoting empathy creates an environment in which children feel safe, respected, and ready to learn. This environment has a deep impact on their academic performance as well as on the foundation of their character. Empathy is one of the most important life skills we can teach our children, and recess is a fantastic place to start.


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