Bullyproofing the Playground

The playground is a hot spot for bullying in schools. Often lightly supervised, recess takes place outside the structures and expectations of the classroom. It’s a time when children try out mean behaviors such as teasing, exclusion, and intimidation, and as I’ve said before, when small acts of meanness goes unnoticed or unstopped, they can quickly become gateways to bullying.

So how can we prevent gateway behaviors and bullying at recess? One common sense answer—by providing more supervision and structured activities on the playground—apparently goes against many educators’ ideas about what recess is for. This spring I was surprised by the results of a survey I read about in the ASCD SmartBrief. Educators were asked how they thought children should spend recess and given a set of responses to choose among. Although I was relieved to see that most of the respondents didn’t think that recess should be done away with in favor of test prep (1%) or used as a reward for the well behaved (2%), I was struck by the fact that the largest group, over 70%, chose the option that described recess as a time for “unstructured play.” Less than 17% chose “structured play with a coach who organizes inclusive games and activities.”

Children need fresh air and exercise on a daily basis. Some children benefit from the downtime that an unstructured recess provides, but some do not. They aren’t sure how to join in a game, cooperate with classmates, or make positive connections with others. For such children, adult-supervised playground games and on-the-spot coaching about how to get along on the playground can be an effective way to learn the skills needed for safe and inclusive play.

I recently spent some time on Playworks’ website. Playworks offers training for school recess staffers in leading inclusive whole group games and teaching children simple conflict resolution skills. Under some circumstances, they also provide recess coaches who spend a year in residence at a school, working with children on the playground. Their website includes “before” and “after” footage of playgrounds where they have worked. It was saddening and yet uncomfortably familiar to watch “before Playworks” scenes of children racing around the playground hitting each other, pulling on each other, and destroying playground materials. Fast forward to the same children working with their “coach,” happily playing games, resolving conflicts with “rock, paper, scissors” and learning play skills that they will be able to carry over to independent use. Not surprisingly, a recent study has shown that children whose schools use Playworks experience less bullying and more readiness for learning than control schools.

In How to Bullyproof Your Classroom I describe how some schools survey children to discover “hot spots” where children feel unsafe in school. In schools where the playground is identified as a hot spot, the adults at school can all get involved in addressing the problem. Staffing on the playground might need to be increased or improved, but the whole staff could also start working on consistently responding to small mean behaviors when they see them. Classroom teachers, physical education teachers, and playground supervisors can all teach children how to be safe, kind, and inclusive during outdoor play. It’s all of our jobs to stop bullying on the playground.

Here’s the option I would have voted for, had it been a choice, on the ASCD survey. I would have voted for playgrounds where teachers prepare children for safe and inclusive play. These playgrounds would have adequate staffing, with adults who share strategies for encouraging emotional and physical safety and for stopping those small mean “gateway” behaviors. Furthermore, I would vote for a daily organized game option so that all children can be a part of the fun. Do you agree?

Caltha Crowe’s new book, How to Bullyproof Your Classroom, offers a practical, proactive approach to bullying prevention. Learn how to create a positive classroom environment and how to respond to mean behavior before it escalates into bullying.

“Teacher-friendly from start to finish!”  —Martha Hanley, Grafton, MA


Tags: Bullying, Playground