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  • Jennifer Smith

Dear Teachers, Recess IS SEL



Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Friday afternoon was gorgeous. The sun was shining and a cool breeze was blowing. The grass and fields had dried out after a week of pouring rain and indoor recess. Our schedule allotted 30 minutes at the end of the day for advisory social emotional learning time. We were supposed to be leading a written curricular activity with our students. Yes, on a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon with middle schoolers, we were supposed to be engaged in social learning through instruction inside the classroom.


My team and I, however, recognized the students’ needs on that afternoon. We took them outside to play instead.


“I hope no one gets upset with us for coming outside instead of completing that lesson. We are supposed to be emphasizing SEL,” I said to my colleagues.


“Jenn!” my colleague Colleen exclaimed, pointing her arms towards the students at play, “this IS SEL!”


We all laughed. So simple, yet so true. Taking the middle schoolers outside to connect, play, socialize, and relax exemplifies social-emotional learning.


What is SEL?

SEL, social-emotional learning, has long been an important piece of educating students. Learning involves more than the academic courses of study. Social-emotional skills are just as important. CASEL, an organization committed to supporting educators develop these skills, developed a framework with five core competencies in the area of social-emotional learning. These competencies are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills.


Why SEL?

Post-lockdown stage, we are realizing these social-emotional skills are lacking in many students. Having spent so much time isolated from others and not in classrooms, students were not able to develop socially. Speaking from my experience, I have noticed my fifth graders this fall act more like third graders than the early fifth graders I usually have. Students call out often rather than raising their hands, struggle to listen to others, and miss social cues in the classroom. They struggle to entertain themselves during unstructured times. They are less independent and require more teacher direction. I have also noticed they are not as adept at responsible decision-making, particularly during lunch and recess.


When I reflected on this in my frustration, I realized why. Many of these students may have last been in a classroom in third grade. Only some students experienced in-person school last year, and learning virtually certainly does not build any of the social-emotional core competencies listed above.


The students we teach now need to develop so many basic social skills. If you want to discuss learning loss, you have to address social-emotional learning. In life, these skills are more important than basic facts. They intertwine with the 21st century competencies of problem-solving, communication, and collaboration. Without skills in relationships and self-awareness, students will not be able to cooperate and work effectively in teams.


While we can always incorporate activities into our classroom lessons, we often overlook simple ways to build student skills. Natural free play and games at recess are necessary and effective ways to build these competencies. Unstructured times allow students to navigate relationships without relying on authorities. They can also learn self-management by determining what works in social situations and what does not. Social cues and “reading the room” are developed through these situations, not necessarily in teacher-led instruction. What will your peers accept, and what will they not accept? How can you work with these people to win a game or build a Lego masterpiece? How do your peers react to you? What is a good idea and what is probably not a good idea? If I am angry and frustrated, is it a good idea to throw the ball in someone’s face?


Yet during the pandemic, children missed the opportunity to play. There was no real recess during virtual school. Students missed opportunities to build Lego structures together, play kickball, tag, or just imagine together.


Too often educators check the box with curriculum and controlled activities rather than creating a natural environment for students to grow. We want to be able to say we are addressing student needs. We want to hammer points home to them.


Are we missing the point? After over a year of isolation and life on Zoom, isn’t free play just what the doctor ordered?


Are your students struggling with social cues, communication, or relationships? If so, let them play.


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