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Navigating social interactions is a hard lesson to learn for any school-aged child. Struggling to figure out who you are and where you fit in is an ongoing challenge that many adults still have difficulty with. For children in elementary school, no place is more important for social interaction than the playground. Not only does recess increase children’s metal capacity and help with memory retention, it also teaches kids how to maneuver the ever-changing and unstable atmosphere of social interaction. Recess promotes social and emotional learning through peer interactions.

The physical and social benefits of recess or free play for elementary aged kids is the same across the board. That said, for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or other related social challenges, the task of peer interaction and navigation is even more difficult. This is where school participation becomes critical. The particular aspects of recess that pose difficult for kids on the spectrum are often the things that other kids look forward to:

  • Lack of structure
  • No expectations
  • Little or no direction or guidance
  • Social interactions dominate
  • Multiple sources of sensory input

Children with autism may feel overwhelmed, uncomfortable, and frightened during periods of unstructured activity. Breaks, lunch, and playtime have little sense of order or control which can cause uncertainty. Sensory overload can be difficult to tolerate and other students may not understand the reactions and behaviors of children on the spectrum.

The best course of action to ensure that all kids receive the benefits of recess is to create a recess plan for those students with ASD. This entails designing a more structured recess environment with games, clearly defined expectations, and will require some supervision from playground staff. Teachers can also help by preparing all of the children for peer interaction. Ensure that all children are supported through encouragement and positivity. Punishment teaches kids what not to do, instead, try explaining what the behavioral expectations are. It’s also important that children and their parents understand ASD and have tools to help be inclusive.