Many children would describe recess as their favorite part of the school day, and its importance is being recognized across the nation. Recess offers children a number of physical, social and cognitive-behavioral benefits and is widely supported by several children’s health and education associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. After years of dismal stories involving recess and physical education being cut from school schedules, some districts, including Maryland’s Washington County, are returning recess as a standard part of the school day.

Two boys and two girls play on top of a playground merry-go-round as part of sensory activities during recess.

The unstructured free play of recess can have numerous benefits for children of all developmental levels. For children with sensory processing issues who need additional input to self-regulate throughout the school day, there are great ways to have fun and be ready to learn. Some students may have sufficient self-awareness to seek out specific activities or to select relevant objects from a bin of equipment. Others may do better with suggestions or semi-structured play with a peer. As a school-based occupational therapist, I have compiled a list of sensory activities that can be done with typical playground or classroom materials that may be of help to your student.

Outdoor Recess

Climbing Activities – monkey bars, cargo net, or rock wall. Monkey bars also offer time to hang from one’s arms or upside down for additional input.

Running Activities – races, freeze tag or flag football. Try throwing different objects as far as possible (softball, whiffle ball, Frisbee, etc.) and seeing how quickly the child can run to them.

Gross Motor Games – soccer, basketball, or tetherball. Hopscotch is a great game and it provides additional input if the board needs to be drawn with sidewalk chalk.

Push the merry-go-round

Use riding toys as available – scooter, bike, or small cars.

While outdoor recess easily lends itself to sensory play, especially with a well-equipped playground, students and teachers face more challenges in the wintertime when recess moves indoors. If available, a great alternative can be to use the gym and access some of the physical education equipment, such as the following.

Gym Activities

  • Jumping using a jump rope, mini trampoline or near a device to measure vertical leap
  • Scooter board activities, especially on one’s stomach
  • Throwing and catching against a wall or rebounding frame
  • Kicking a soccer ball or earth ball – For a single student, a small ball could be kicked and rebounded against a wall. Several students could “crab walk” to move the ball toward a goal using an earth ball.
  • Playing tug of war or zoom ball
  • Parachute games                

Though it may seem more difficult due to space constraints and the natural environment, free play during recess in a classroom can also have sensory benefits.

Classroom Recess

Pull-apart toys: Legos, snap beads, or tangles

Manipulating clay or resistive putty. A plastic knife and cookie cutters adds extra resistance and variety.

Play board games while positioned over an exercise ball

Try yoga activities, self-stretching, or isometric exercises as a class or small group. Many teachers use Go Noodle for activities to break between lessons or during recess. Pushups against a wall is another great way to get deep pressure input.

Create artwork while using an easel or paper taped to the wall. Chalk or crayons will offer more feedback.

Crafts using a handheld hole punch, curvy scissors, or heavy paper.

Hang up items for display on an overhead clothesline or bulletin board.

Searching for and hiding objects in a sensory bin of clay, putty, rice, or sand.

Given the rigorous academic standards our students are facing, they are in even more need of dedicated recess time to recharge between classes. I strongly encourage teachers not to take away recess as a punishment for misbehavior. Positive behavioral supports and alternative punishments can replace this habit of many teachers. The Inspired Treehouse provides ten suggestions of positive discipline measures to avoid taking away recess that can be easily implemented in many school situations.

I hope these suggestions help your students to enjoy and benefit from their recess this school year and return to the classroom each day a little more ready to learn.

About the Author

Cheryl Morris is an occupational therapist with 9 years of experience. She is proud to be part of the Washington County Public Schools team.