Tips for Balancing Social Time with Learning

Most elementary teachers realize their 5-year-old to 9-year-old students are little bundles of energy. And, these kids need to move around. Unfortunately during the “No Child Left Behind” movement, it was popular to cut recess time and replace it with additional instruction and/or testing. Thankfully, the trend is now reversing with teachers, administrators and parents more on board with the idea that unstructured playtime in elementary school is an important part of learning.

In fact, as an elementary school teacher, you will probably notice that valuable life lessons take place during recess or other free time. Learning to share and compromise, taking turns and making friends are all activities that can happen during an elementary student’s free time. These experiences can help kids successfully navigate their academic career, as well as make it easier to manage your classroom.

So, how do you balance time spent on curriculum with unstructured play opportunities? Below are some tips that can help you create social and educational lessons in your classroom:

  1. Make morning work more social. Do you hand out worksheets during morning work time? If so, consider switching up the routine a few times a week with morning work manipulatives. Store sets of materials in easy-to-see cubbies or clear tubs and have students work in groups a few mornings a week. For instance, have 8-10 sets of materials available. These can be STEM items, card games like UNO, Scrabble tiles, art supplies, etc. Divide students in to groups and let 2-3 kids share one set of materials. This adds social time to their day plus forces them to work on sharing and negotiation skills.


  1. Board games. Set aside 15 – 30 minutes every other day for board game play. What better way to teach the “taking turns” skill than with a quick Chutes and Ladders or Connect Four game? An added benefit is that these types of games almost always include counting. Plus, kids can engage in casual conversation and friend-making during this time. Increase the educational value by adding on a quick math or writing lesson at the end. Kids can write a paragraph about which board game they like best or they can keep track of points during a game and add them up afterwards, work out an average score, etc.


  1. Cooking projects. Kids almost always love to help out in the kitchen but it can be hard for families to carve out that time at home. Use your classroom to set up a play restaurant a few times a semester. Assign duties like setting tables, pouring drinks, measuring ingredients, stirring, etc. Of course it will be easier to use recipes that don’t require a lot of stove or oven time like Rice Krispie Treats, no-bake chocolate oatmeal cookies, etc. Be creative, patient and know you may have to dash down to the teacher’s lounge to melt or boil something in the microwave.

These three activities have the potential to create academic lessons as well as important social interaction. Children learn during play so be sure to allow time for your students to engage in social/leisure activities during the school day.