Child Behavior: Unstructured Playtime

Ask Dr. Fernandez

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Q | I have a student who doesn’t feel comfortable joining in during recess. What are some strategies to help her?

A | It’s not uncommon for unstructured periods like lunch and recess to present difficulties for children. Activities tend to be more open-ended, expectations slightly less clear, and the adult-to-student ratio lower. You might notice a student sitting by himself, trying to join in but being excluded, or jumping into a game too forcefully.

First, specifically identify how your student is struggling and how she could have more success. What is her experience with recess, and how would she like to see it improved? You may find that she sits out because she needs the downtime to reset, in which case having her join a recess activity for the entire time may not work for her.

Once you have a sense of her experience, work with her to identify two or three achievable goals. If she tends to sit out games, a goal may be to have her join one and play for a couple of minutes, working up from there. Role-play how she might join various activities or approach different peers if you are concerned she may not know how to. Then, monitor how she does. Also, check in with your student afterward to find out how she thinks she did, what went well, and what could have gone better. Establish an ongoing conversation to evaluate whether your approach is working.

Question for Dr. Fernandez?

Melanie A. Fernandez, Ph.D., ABPP, is board certified in clinical child and adolescent psychology and is director of the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Program at the Child Mind Institute (


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