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“Well-Played Recess” Research Looks at Teaching Students to Resolve Conflict with Peers

What if recess was more than just a time for play? What if it was an opportunity for students to use and enhance skills that they are learning in a formal classroom setting? “A Well-Played Recess,” an action research project undertaken by our lead social worker, Dr. Carolyn Mak, as part of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools Global Action Research Collaborative, did just that. With the research support of the Chandaria Research Centre, the study looked at how recess is often experienced by students at a girls' school.
Over the course of a year, Grade 4 students learned about how to both give feedback to peers and when to seek help from adults when recess conflict occurs. The study used an iterative process to examine effective ways to teach students to positively interact with each other to mitigate conflict, foster empathy and build friendships.

“Even though recess is universal in elementary schools, it is one of the least researched areas in education,” explained Dr. Mak. “Recess is important, not only because it provides a break for students in the day, but because it is actually an important opportunity for students to practise social skills, to experiment with play and to learn about themselves and their peers.”

Dr. Mak spent the year developing and delivering lessons about giving and receiving feedback to improve communication skills and help students navigate the challenges encountered at recess. At the end of the year, she found that students felt that it was really important that recess was inclusive, and that no one felt left out. That could sometimes create internal conflict for students who wanted to be inclusive, but also wanted to learn to communicate their boundaries when they didn’t want to play with someone. The shared language, role-play and practice from the lessons helped students to solidify these communication skills.

“We were experiencing what many schools anecdotally report: that friendship and social challenges would arise at recess but students were not equipped with the skills to resolve these issues, so they would come back in after a recess period, feeling upset, distressed and stuck,” said Dr. Mak. “At our school, we aim to teach social-emotional learning skills, both explicitly and implicitly, so that students know how to both enjoy the play and reflection time that recess affords, as well as how to communicate with each other to navigate challenges that inevitably arise on the playground.”

The study included class discussions, small group conversations and role-play to teach the concepts of what a “well-played recess” is, using the skills of explanation, clarification and suggestion when a student can’t or doesn’t want to join a group in play, as well as how to seek help from an adult.
Once the study started, the research team used a process in which students could build on what they learned each week. “Week by week, we would review what was previously discussed and see how those skills were playing out in real recesses through observations,” said Dr. Mak. “The students also had a say in co-construction of the content and what kinds of real life scenarios and dilemmas we would discuss and role-play.”

“The purpose of the Chandaria Research Centre is to support the school and its faculty in being able to be data-driven and evidence based and constantly improve the programs at Branksome Hall,” said Dr. Natasha Koustova, Associate Director of the Chandaria Research Centre. “This study is such a wonderful example of how well action research can work.”

The Chandaria Research Centre (CRC) was established in 2016 and its staff work to initiate new research and explore education excellence in teaching and learning, well-being and international mindedness.

To learn more about “A Well-Played Recess,” please watch this video.
We wish to acknowledge this land on which Branksome operates. For thousands of years, it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous peoples from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work and go to school on this land.

Setting the new standard for girls' education everywhere takes collective action. From all of us.