Helpful Ideas for Unconventional Recess Environments

No two playgrounds are alike.

Even the ideal outdoor setup is subject to factors like weather that can require a Plan B. While small areas create crowding, very large spaces can be challenging to manage.

If you need to hold recess indoors for any reason or have a particularly large or small space to work with, it’s smart to plan ahead. Here are some factors to consider for different sized groups and play areas:

Smaller Areas

Be mindful of the type of equipment used. Modify equipment for group games to avoid balls bouncing over walls or out of intended play area—or plan games that don’t require equipment.

Larger Areas

Strategize a layout that works for both kids and adults. On very large playgrounds, prevent blind spots and student disengagement by rotating the opening of peripheral play spaces to certain recess periods or days. For example, the far blacktop is open at morning recess, and the far grassy area is open at lunch recess.

For either situation, adjust adult supervision placement to maximize engagement and safety.

What to play in unconventional spaces?

There are a number of challenging and entertaining games kids can play in small spaces or during indoor recess with just paper and a few colored pens. Tic Tac Toe is a classic example.

These games are great for students who do not want to participate in the more physically active games as well. Here are three games to try at your next unconventional or indoor recess:

Dots and Boxes

To play Dots, you need paper and at least two colored pens/pencils. Start by drawing dots in a square pattern. Begin with 6×6 and challenge your kids to go up to 30×30 or more. Players (2 or more) take turns using their colored pen/pencil to draw line segments between dots. When a player forms a square with their line, they put their initial in that square and continue playing. The game continues until all the lines between the dots have been drawn.


Players secretly write down common phrases on pieces of paper and fold them up. The first chosen artist randomly picks a phrase to draw while the others guess the phrase without talking or drawing letters or symbols. Once guessed correctly, a new artist is picked. Variation: instead of common phrases, write books, characters/celebrities, or films.

Look Up, Look Down

Begin with two circles of players. Chose one person in each circle to be the caller who starts by saying, “Look down!” Everyone looks down at their feet. When the caller says “Look up!” everyone looks up directly at someone else in that circle. If two people are looking at each other, they both go to the other circle. If caller leaves the circle, a new caller is chosen.

Bob the Bunny

Introduce the students to “Bob the Bunny,” a small object, ball, or stuffed bunny. Standing in a circle, students place their hands behind their backs. Choose one student to be in the middle, and ask them to close their eyes. The group begins chanting in rhythm, “Bob the bunny, Bob, Bob, the bunny!” while passing the bunny around the circle, keeping the bunny behind them.

Once the bunny is in motion, the student in the middle opens their eyes and gets three guesses as to who is holding the bunny. Variations: Play with multiple bunnies, ask students to change the name of the character, or incorporate the school/local sports team mascot.

What to try this week

  • Ask your colleagues about challenges they have during indoor recess and brainstorm solutions together, like playground mapping or trying out new games.
  • Come up with an indoor recess plan for inclement weather.
  • Test out a few pen and paper games with kid during your regular recess, especially if you see kids hanging back or not participating in larger group games.
  • Check out this fun site for more games to play indoors.

This program has contributed to a decrease in playground incidents. It provides organized play and teaches positive social skills (which is what we need as we move forward with changing student/school climate).

Eliseo C. Felix, Elementary, AZ