Social Inclusion in the School Playground

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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.

So exactly what is social inclusion in the playground and how do we achieve it?

In basic terms, social inclusion occurs when children:

  1. Feel included within their own friendship circles as well as feeling included by others in the playground
  2. Willingly include others into their friendship circles and make everyone feel welcome in the playground

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.

Tips for Teachers

While inclusion policies guide all Australian Schools, here are some other practical ways to promote and support social inclusion within the playground:

  • Swap lunchtime duty with another teacher from a vastly different age group and exchange observations with each other. Fresh eyes can often see different ways to improve social inclusion.
  • Encourage children to cast a ‘wide net’ of friends in a variety of different circles e.g. classroom friends, close friends, soccer friends, buddy group friends, afterschool bus friends etc. The more friends they have in different places the more likely they will feel included somewhere else when a friendship breakdown occurs.
  • Challenge younger children to make new friends at lunchtime. In an effort to get to know different children, ask them during playtime to make two new friends that they haven’t played with before.
  • Challenge older children to try a different lunchtime activity that they haven’t participated in before. This can often open up other possibilities, including new friendships, new dynamics, or different groupings of children.
  • Teach children how to politely decline an invitation to play using the sandwich approach (positive, negative, positive). An example of this includes:

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)”.

  • Promote authentic friendships between children with and without disabilities. They are there as equals to play, connect, interact, and have fun together. The typical developing child is there to be a true friend, not a ‘helper’.  True friends help, of course – but that isn’t their dominant role in the relationship.
  • Encourage and invite families to be involved in learning activities and games from their culture, background, or country during lunchtime. Children love to learn new games and is a great way to experience a different culture.
  • In the playground, consider how the one-on-one support you give children who display challenging needs could have negative consequences for an inclusive environment. Are they constantly being shadowed or given continuous support?  Think about the ‘hidden message’ that is being sent to that child and others – are they not capable? are they dangerous or scary? Can I not play with them without the teacher around?
  • Introduce games into the playground that promote teamwork and inclusion. Consider games that are continuous and don’t eliminate participants, Indigenous, or non-traditional (ones that are completely new to everyone).
  • Help students come up with ways of making their own lunchtime games more inclusive. g. handball can be expanded to include more players, or the server can rotate out after 3 serves so they don’t monopolise the serving position.
  • Consider social ramifications with access and affordability when offering lunchtime or afterschool activities where children need to pay to participate.
  • Recognise and praise the efforts of students who are displaying inclusive play practices

Tips to Share with Parents

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:

  • Discuss the positive and unique qualities about other children, in particular ones they don’t normally play with.
  • Discuss how some children may take longer than their child did to ‘learn’ a certain skill or behaviour. Often children are excluded when their social skills are at a lower level than their peers. While teachers will most likely have strategies in place to help the other child with their social skills, parents can support their own child in becoming more understanding and empathetic. A simple conversation will help immensely by explaining that the other child is still learning how to ‘ask others to play’ and that they might need encouragement from classmates or the teacher at playtime.
  • Be a role model for your own child. If parents would like their child to include others, then they should role model that same behaviour by talking to parents they haven’t spoken to before at school, the park or playground.  They could also show their child that they take an interest in families from different backgrounds and that they welcome new families into the neighbourhood or school.
  • While it is ok for children not to play with everyone all the time, parents can also show them how fun it is to include others.
  • Expose their child to diversity. This could include trying foods from different cultures, interacting with a range of people, reading diverse books, attending multicultural events, volunteering at a charity, or watching educational TV programs together.
  • Nurture the relationships that their child makes with all children, not just the ones of the parents that they like the most.
  • Emphasise and embrace their own child’s unique traits. Teach them that being different is great and is what sets them apart from everyone else. They will then be able to appreciate differences in others.

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.

Where to go for more help:

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