October is National Bullying Prevention Month, created and designated by Pacer.org in 2006. It serves to remind us to focus on this hurtful behavior that many of us experienced ourselves during childhood or actually inflicted on others; and act to raise awareness through “events, activities, outreach, and education”.
In a recent blog article, All 50 States Now Have a Bullying Law. Now What?, Deborah Temkin discusses the goals of the new laws and the complexities of defining and criminalizing bullying behavior. She states: “the goal of state anti-bullying laws was not and is not to actually prevent bullying. Instead, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in a 2010 memo to Governors and School State School Officers, anti-bullying laws and policies serve to ‘send a message that all incidents of bullying must be addressed immediately and effectively, and such behavior will not be tolerated’”.
As School Social Workers we know that building a positive school climate is paramount to preventing bullying behaviors and teaching positive conflict resolution and social skills. We invest in and utilize multi-tiered models and methods to achieve this: push-in classroom sessions using violence prevention, empathy building and problem solving skills curricula; pull-out individual and group counseling; and school-wide activities to promote a peaceful campus.
In the past few years, we have come to realize that we must invest our time and interventions on the playground in order to provide the greatest access to our services and have the greatest impact on the entire school—not just with the students who have been identified and referred to us. In many respects, this is the “last frontier” once a School Social Worker has developed a multi-tiered program with integrated student support systems.
We have identified several key principles in developing a viable and sustainable playground program. First, it is important to systematically calendar and plan developmentally appropriate and engaging activities for students of different grades. Second, focus should be placed on recruiting, training, and utilizing Interns or volunteers who can serve as trained adults on the playground at nearly every recess. Third, it is essential to introduce a game or choice of games, teach new games, develop and train a peer conflict resolution group, and maintain clearly articulated rules.
Programs such as Playworks and Peaceful Playgrounds feature free resources for schools to develop playground programming and offer their services for hire as well. Some suggested games and activities to build community and teamwork (elementary and middle school levels, varies with the ages):
Field—Red Light/Green Light; Relay Races; Potato Sack Races; Duck Duck Goose; Parachute activities; Shark Attack; Mr. Shark/Mrs. Shark.
Blacktop—4 Square; Around the World; Bean Bag Tosses (teams use painted letters and numbers on blacktop to spell words or work out math problems and equations); sidewalk chalk (individual and group thematic drawings); School Social Worker playing DJ (at Paul’s middle school, often with as many as 50 students dancing to the Cupid Shuffle and the Cha Cha Slide); Musical Chairs; Art Club (or simply providing the space, supplies and supervision for students to get creative and enjoy getting to know others).
Tables—Coloring sheets; watercolor painting; holiday/seasonal/thematic crafts; legos; blocks; shape blocks; stencils and colored pencils; posters for school events/themes; checkers; chess; Jenga; Uno; and Connect Four.
Spending significant time on the playground consistently and with intention can be physically and mentally exhausting, however, we have found that it is well worth the effort! The students come to understand that more adults will be available to them, which in turn helps them to feel safer and calmer. Knowing we will be out there gives them the confidence to report bullying as it is occurring and trust that we will respond. It gives the School Social Worker the opportunity to intervene and be truly present for those “teachable moments” as they arise in the natural environment, gaining a deeper understanding of student and group behaviors, relationships and dynamics; deescalating conflicts and avoiding fights; and helping students to develop skills that they can carry with them throughout their school years, into their home lives and the future.
This social emotional learning is possible because we are outside with them, on the playground, “where they live”. The playground is our classroom!
 http://www.playworks.org/; http://www.peacefulplaygrounds.com/