Recess can provide valuable learning opportunities. Taking short breaks throughout the school day appears to help some children pay attention in the classroom (Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1996). And play can be a powerful predictor of children’s competence (Pellegrini, 1995). Experience on the playground may promote social competence by giving students opportunities to practice new skills, negotiate and problem-solve, and interact with a wide range of other children (Leff, Power, Costigan, & Manz, 2003).
Although there are many benefits, playgrounds may also pose risks to the physical and emotional well-being of children (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1997). Most injuries in elementary school occur on the playground (Bruya & Wood, 1998). In addition, some children find recess unsafe and frightening (Astor, Meyer, & Pitner, 2001), perhaps because bullying and other forms of aggression often occur on the playground (Craig, Pepler, & Atlas, 2000; Olweus, 1993). When playground aggression goes unchecked, students may learn that fighting, name-calling, excluding others, and other antisocial behaviors “work.”
It is important to assess the structure and procedures of playgrounds and their supervision regularly. It is also beneficial to evaluate systems of staff communication and follow-through related to playground incidents. Finally, it is helpful to consider how playgrounds can support a school’s broader goals for student behavior and a safe learning environment.
The Physical Environment
Evaluating the physical environment of playground areas is an important step in improving school safety. First, conduct a visual survey of the playground to evaluate the extent to which these common hazards are present:
- Gaps in the fence surrounding the playground.
- Access points from the play area directly to a street.
- Low-hanging branches or shrubs that prevent or limit adults’ ability to see children, especially around the edges of the playground.
- Debris on the playground, such as broken glass.
- Barriers to clear line-of-sight supervision, such as concrete walls, other school buildings, or trees.
- Large, unsupervised play areas, such as fields.
- Dangerous play equipment or ground surfacing material (See Handbook for Public Playground Safety listed in references for detailed guidelines).
Quality of adult supervision is critical to developing and maintaining a safe playground. Yet providing high-quality supervision on playgrounds is one of the most difficult challenges facing schools (Thompson, 1991). Common supervision-related problems found on playgrounds include:
Absence of adult line-of-sight or hearing-range supervision for large areas of the playground.
Lack of adequate adult supervision when playground transitions occur (for example, when students line up to go back into a building).
Adults failing to circulate throughout all areas of the playground and its perimeter.
Lack of adult intervention when children behave aggressively.
Lack of follow-through on reports of playground aggression and bullying.
Limited communication or coordination between recess supervisors and other school staff about children’s behavior at recess.
Typically, improving supervision takes resources, but there are low- and no-cost ways to make existing supervision on the playground more effective. To develop high-quality playground supervision, it is important to consider several things.
1. Ratios of adults to children.
Limit the total number and age range of children on the playground at the same time. Maintain an adequate adult-to-student supervision ratio from the time children are on the playground to when teachers “take over” their classes following recess. Some resources recommend at least the same ratio as in the classroom (for example, Bruya & Wood, 1998).
If your playground has high rates of problem behavior or environmental barriers to supervision (such as high walls), increase the number of adults circulating through the problem areas.
Take special care that there are enough adults supervising large, open spaces such as fields. If this is problematic, only permit field use when enough adults can be present to circulate and/or organize field activities.
2. Training for playground monitors.
Take a proactive approach to supervision by providing ongoing training for monitors and enabling them to meet on a regular basis. Specifically, provide training in “active supervision.” This includes circulating continuously through an assigned area, praising positive behavior, and helping children problem solve.
Assign monitors to circulate through identified zones of the playground.
Train monitors to deal with physical fights and other dangerous playground situations. Most school districts have a policy regarding hands-on management of students that balances schools’ responsibility for both student and staff safety. All monitors should receive training and support to handle these situations.
3. Routines and communication for playground supervisors
Provide a method of communication (such as hand-held radios) so monitors can coordinate supervision and call for additional support as needed.
Develop a specific routine for transition times to ensure continuous supervision of students. Provide clear-cut guidelines for behavior during these times (for example, assign areas for children to line up by class).
Implement a schoolwide system for handling, tracking, and communicating about playground problems and disciplinary infractions. Train monitors to use this system, and regularly solicit their input and feedback on its efficacy.
By Jennie Snell, Committee for Children research scientist.
Astor, R. A., Meyer, H. A., & Pitner, R. O. (2001). Elementary and middle school students’ perceptions of violence-prone school subcontexts. Elementary School Journal, 101, 511–528.
Bruya, L. D., & Wood, G. (1998). Achieving a safe ratio on the playground. Parks and Recreation, 33, 74–76.
Craig, W. M., Pepler, D. J., & Atlas, R. (2000). Observations of bullying in the playground and in the classroom. School Psychology International, 21, 22–36.
Leff, S. S., Power, T. J., Costigan, T. E., & Manz, P. H. (2003). Assessing the climate of the playground and lunchroom: Implications for bullying prevention programs. School Psychology Review, 32, 418–430.
Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Pellegrini, A. D. (1995). School recess and playground behavior: Educational and developmental roles. State University of New York Press: Albany, NY.
Pellegrini, A. D., & D. F. Bjorklund. (1996). The place of recess in school: Issues in the role of recess in children's education and development. Journal of Research in Childhood Education 11(1): 5–13.
Thompson, T. (1991). People make the difference in school playground safety. The Executive Educator, 13, 28–29.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (1997). Handbook for public playground safety. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.