I’d like to offer up four social and emotional learning (SEL) skills that can be built up during physical education class or recess. Outdoor physical activities are an ideal time to develop SEL. Some of this is done in the moment, while at other times it involves instruction and preparation. For example, you may call students’ attention to certain actions during their participation and observations during play, and follow this up by facilitating a class discussion around their observations.
Sometimes students are concerned only about what they will do when it’s their turn—for example, when the ball will next come to them. In a group game that has a ball, you can assist students with attending to the small things involved. This builds their appreciation of all the moving pieces that are critical to team—and individual—success.
Give them an assignment: “When you are involved in the activity, notice the many details of what is happening. Who is doing what, and why?” You can also ask, “What is being said? How does that make the game or activity better or harder?”
You can then lead a class discussion about what students observed.
2. Emotion Regulation
What do athletes do at the most important moments in a game or match? Let’s think about what pitchers do, soccer goalies do, baseball batters do, or tennis players do. They take a deep breath, and they have rituals that help them calm down. Different athletes do things in slightly different ways, and it’s worth noticing these variations and discussing them with students (or watching video clips of these rituals of various athletes).
You can then assist students in identifying what they can do to regulate their emotions in stressful situations during outdoor physical activities. Also explore with them ways they can remind themselves to use their strategy in “big game” situations.
3. Goal Setting
Every student should have an explicit long- and short-term goal for recess activities or PE: “What is something I want to get better at, and what am I going to do today, or this week, to get better at it?” These are important conversations, helping students continue to develop goal-setting skills and also putting time to best use. (Coaches also will find that students are more engaged when they consciously have goals in mind.)
Goal setting is no less important when students are in the process of playing, whether at PE or in recess. Ask students to consider, for example, what soccer players or basketball players do when they don’t have the ball. They are not just standing around—or at least they shouldn’t be! What could they be thinking about? How are they getting themselves ready for what might happen next? When they’re out in the field, they have a goal to be prepared and ready to help their teammates.
4. Preparation and Practice
Another aspect of physical activity and sports play that students may not understand adequately is what happens before the action begins. Consider showing brief video clips of preparation routines from athletes like tennis star Serena Williams or basketball pro LeBron James. You can ask your students, “Why do they do this?”
A discussion can ensue: They don’t just begin playing—even though these are professionals, they still have to prepare. You can share with students that whether it’s PE, recess, or any of their subject areas in school, they will be more likely to reach their goals if they prepare.
Sometimes the preparation conversation will be about interpersonal matters and not the activity itself. For example, with a student who is having trouble joining activities or games in recess or PE, a conversation about the goal (“Which are you planning to join?”) and how to prepare (“What are you going to do to help you get in the game? What will you do if your first idea does not work?”) can be valuable, as can a check-in afterwards.
When activities in PE will not involve all students playing, or students having to wait a while before they get their chance, have a conversation with students to help them prepare for what will happen, and to focus on different aspects of the activity while they are not directly playing or participating.
Additional SEL Skills
Whether you’re a coach, a physical education teacher, or a recess monitor, consider other SEL skills—problem-solving and planning, teamwork/cooperation, resilience and overcoming obstacles, using feedback effectively, recognizing success—and the various ways you can bolster them in your students.