School health in action:

Belonging at recess

Take a moment to remember recess—the sights, sounds, and sensations of that everyday school experience. Recall the grip of the monkey bars, the wind in your hair, the laughter all around. Many of us have positive memories of recess—full of happiness, excitement, and acceptance from friends. But for some, thinking about recess can bring back feelings of boredom, loneliness, or embarrassment.

Recess experiences are the focus of research by Dr. Lauren McNamara at Toronto Metropolitan University. In 2019, four school authorities in southeast Alberta came together with the Moving & Choosing collaborative to explore Dr. McNamara's work and its relationship to the health and wellness of their students. They were driven by a common vision for recess: Ensuring every student feels like they belong

Let's take a look at their collective efforts to bring about positive change.

Professional learning

The project launched in spring 2019 with the Southeastern Alberta Recess Summit. It featured a keynote address from Dr. McNamara about the influence of recess on students' social emotional development, sense of belonging, and success in school. It also involved workshop-style sessions to help school health champions build their skills and confidence to support positive recess experiences for all students. Topics included student voice and leadership, unstructured play, physically active indoor recess, and tarmac games.

Student survey

Early in the 2019/20 school year, more than 1,800 students in grades 2–6 took part in a survey about what recess is like for them. This gave students an opportunity to share their stories and ideas, guide priority-setting, and inform strategic planning. 

The survey found that most students reported positive recess experiences:

  • 87% mostly or always had friends to play with
  • 87% got along with others
  • 76% felt included 
  • 76% were physically active

However, the survey also found that some students experienced challenges at recess: 25% said they were teased, 29% felt ignored, and 19% reported being hit, kicked, or pushed. Some also disclosed that they felt uncomfortable talking to school staff about what they were going through.

Evidence-informed action planning

With support from AHS health promotion facilitators, health champions reviewed survey results for their individual school, and reflected on how typical recess routines and practices could shift or change.

Next, each school team created an action plan framed around the essential conditions for comprehensive school health. While there are similarities in each plan, each one is uniquely suited to the strengths and needs of students, local context, and community culture. Here are some sample actions:

Priority Action

Outdoor space and equipment

  • Painting tarmacs for organized games, like hopscotch and four-square
  • Planning and fundraising for natural play spaces
  • Trying out different play materials, like hoops, balls, skipping ropes, and common household items

Student voice and leadership

  • Training older students to facilitate recess games and encourage participation among younger students 
  • Bringing students together to talk about recess likes, dislikes, and ideas for improvement
  • Creating recess clubs based on common interests (like flying paper airplanes, solving puzzles, or doing crafts)

Active supervision

  • Setting up activity zones to encourage different types of play, and to make them easier to supervise
  • Mapping the playground and creating walking routes for recess supervisors
  • Boosting supervision in 'hot spots' for bullying or conflict

All-weather recess

  • Setting clear expectations that students will go outside for recess in all weather, with no specific temperature cut-off 
  • Giving staff discretion to shorten recess or move it indoors in extreme weather conditions
  • Communicating with families around appropriate clothing for all-weather recess
  • Creating a clothing bank at school for students to borrow cold weather gear, as needed


Next steps

School health champions across southeastern Alberta remain committed to promoting play and social connection at recess. For 2022/23, several school teams are returning to their pre-pandemic recess plans and figuring out how to adapt them for current context. Some project partners are noticing new momentum around students as recess leaders—they're working with the Moving & Choosing collaborative to offer training on how to facilitate recess games and activities. 

Feeling inspired?

For more information and tips to take action, go to:

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