By Renee Irving-Lee, Children’s Book Author © 2019 Learning Links
As children progress through primary school, the importance of peer friendships becomes more significant and feeling included in playground activities becomes a vital factor in the healthy development of their social and emotional wellbeing.
When children feel invited, accepted, appreciated, and included they are more likely to perform well at school, have higher self-esteem, and engage in meaningful relationships with both teachers and students. Social inclusion is vital for the development of happy, well-rounded children who are caring and thoughtful of others.
In basic terms, social inclusion occurs when children:
On a deeper level, social inclusion is a genuine commitment by teachers to support children in understanding that all individuals are different and should be valued regardless of race, gender, religion, economic background, or ability.
It is about supporting children to appreciate differences in each other and teaching them skills and attitudes required of living in a diverse society. This level of thinking helps to remove stereotypes and bridge the divide between mainstream and those who are perceived as ‘different’. Social inclusion does not mean that children have to play with everyone all of the time, but it does mean they have to know how to make others feel welcome and included in the same shared playing space of the playground.
In primary school however, friendships often become more selective and the formation of cliques or the ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups begin to emerge. These groups can be either intentionally or unintentionally determined by differences in physical ability, appearance, intellectual capabilities, economic status, religion, or cultural backgrounds.
Children’s play experiences also change considerably as they progress from early childhood and can be another likely factor in the emergence of ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. Their play transitions from associative play in the younger years to co-operative and competitive play during primary school. This can pose problems with leadership, group dynamics, communication, and result in social exclusion of those deemed not competent by the alpha children in the group. There are also changes to the teacher-student ratio and there is no longer an adult always within arm’s reach in the playground. There is less scaffolding that takes place to assist with playground disputes or to monitor inclusive play practices.
Social exclusion seems to be particularly common in girls and a trend of excluding others by spreading rumours, calling names, or purposefully embarrassing them in front of a group can be typical. Older primary school children are also involved in extending these social exclusion measures into online and social media forms.
Current research tells us that children who are exposed to social exclusion can suffer dramatic effects to their physical, emotional, and mental health. They can experience lower immune function, reduced quality of sleep, decreased resilience, lower self-esteem and experience feelings of anxiety, depression, and aggression. This is of particular concern leading into high school as adolescents are more sensitive to peer rejection and their neurological profile suggests they are most susceptible to significant mental health problems if distressed by social exclusion.
To avoid this, it is vital that our children are taught prosocial behaviours as early as possible, such as empathy, teamwork, helping others, communication skills and social acceptance.
While inclusion policies guide all Australian Schools, here are some other practical ways to promote and support social inclusion within the playground:
“Thanks for asking me (positive), but I want to play on the fort right now (negative). I can play tag with you next lunch break (positive)”.
Social inclusion for parents is not just about asking their child to be nice to everyone as this does not promote long term behaviours to inclusiveness. Some practical tips to share with parents to assist their child to play inclusively include:
Social inclusion becomes more complex and harder to monitor for school age children, but the impact on their emotional and social wellbeing becomes much more significant. While teachers don’t have total control over what happens in the playground, they can regulate what happens in their own classroom.
Social inclusion during playtime should be an extension on what is being taught and discussed in the classroom and true inclusiveness lies in the culture you have created from within. Do you encourage class-based discussions to help children understand the moral and social implications of exclusion? Do all your students feel included, accepted, and appreciated by you and do they then model this inclusive mindset in the playground towards others? Children who embrace social inclusion will be our much needed global citizens, life-long learners, and progressive leaders of the 21st Century.
National Council of Social Service – Let’s Play Together: A fun and Simple Guide to Conduct Inclusive Games for all.
NSW Government Office of Sport – Indigenous Traditional Games
Kids Helpline – Bullying at School
Greater Good Magazine – Six Ways to Help your Child Deal with Social Exclusion
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