What factors contribute to bullying and aggression and what strategies would best promote cooperative play and positive social interaction among children during school recess? A study was done to illustrate how the development of a partnership between researchers, teachers, community members, and students can lead to a playground-based bully-prevention program. The study took place in a large urban elementary school in Philadelphia, which had approximately 750 students in kindergarten-4th grade.

The Effects of Aggression

Low level acts of aggression such as teasing, hitting, pushing, and threatening occur frequently in schools across America (1). Students who engage in such aggressive behavior usually struggle to get along with peers, have anger management challenges, behavior problems, and perform poorly academically (2, 3). Similarly, being the victim of bullying also associates with emotional problems including depression, anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sometimes school avoidance (4, 5). In addition, some researchers suggest that early forms of aggression may lead children to become perpetrators of serious violence, as they become older (6). As such, it is important for schools to develop school-wide approaches to prevent low level aggression and bullying.

The Promotion of Social Skills to Prevent Bullying During Recess

Given that the majority of low-level aggression in the elementary school occurs in unstructured school settings, such as on the playground during recess (7), it is surprising that few programs have been developed to promote children’s social skills during recess (8). Children from inner-city schools may be particularly vulnerable to victimization on the playground, because these settings are often understaffed and under-resourced with respect to age- and gender appropriate play equipment (9). As such, more attention needs to be directed to re-designing school playgrounds, empowering playground supervisors to better guide children’s play behaviors, and helping educators implement age- and gender-appropriate activities for children during school recess.

Partnerships Between Educators and Researchers

Partnerships between educators and researchers can be helpful in building schools’ capacities to promote child development and prevent bullying and victimization (10). In our work, we utilize a partnership-based model that enables the research team to integrate scientific methods with input from key community stakeholders to create and evaluate a potentially effective and acceptable intervention program.

Our research team collaborated with school administrators, teachers, parents, and especially playground supervisors to design and implement a playground-based intervention. Researchers and school staff met on several occasions to better understand the strengths of the particular school and how they could improve children’s playground behaviors. We identified the concerns of children and families at the school and combined these with the team’s knowledge about research methodology and empirical literature.

How the Prevention Program was Developed and Evaluated

School and community partners were actively involved in the implementation, data collection, and data interpretation process.

  • The primary concern indicated by the school partners was to establish a socialized recess program whereby children would play together more cooperatively, with less aggression and rough play. Given that there were complaints that rough physical play occurred throughout the school yard, we wished to reduce this to more normative levels.
  • A second issue was to promote better interactions among children of different ethnic backgrounds.

Over the course of several months, researchers and playground supervisors collaborated weekly to develop a structured and engaging recess program, through learning fun and engaging activities, active monitoring strategies, and successful techniques to handle aggressive behaviors.

  • Playground dynamics were changed as supervisors repainted the playground, dividing it into five distinct sections differentiated by age and gender-appropriate activities (i.e., hopscotch, relay races, hot potato game, jump rope).
  • Additionally, playground supervisors conducted an assembly to inform students and teachers about the new socialized recess program, playground expectations and activities, and ways that classroom teachers can learn how to best support these efforts.
  • Playground supervisors were given training on how to monitor a specific area of the playground in an active and engaging manner. They also were encouraged to provide at least one structured activity within their section of the playground.

The following year, the research team was invited back to the school to help the playground supervisors determine whether the socialized recess program procedures were being successful in promoting more cooperation and less physical action among students. Using a playground-based observation system co-designed by researchers and school staff, the research team observed 32 separate recess periods.

  • It was found that having a structured activity occurring within a section of the playground was related to much higher rates of cooperative play among children and less physical and rough play.
  • For example, having an activity in a particular section of the playground was associated with a three-fold increase in the probability that children would be engaged in cooperative play, while rough-physical play was cut in half and thereby reduced to a more normative level.
  • Further, when adults actively monitored their section of the playground, there was a significant increase in positive social interactions amongst children from different ethnic backgrounds.

We shared findings from the study with the school. We then assisted in the continued development of the socialized recess program.

What We Found

  • Results from this study suggest that structured and cooperative games during school recess can have a strong impact on increasing childhood prosocial behaviors and decreasing behaviors found to lead to aggression and bullying (e.g., high levels of rough physical play).
  • Further, the role of active supervision among adults on the playground had beneficial effects, especially in promoting positive interactions among youth of diverse cultures.
  • The fact that this relatively-intensive study was enthusiastically supported by the school suggests that partnerships between researchers and diverse school staff and students can be used to create respectful and sensitive bullying and aggression prevention programs on school playgrounds during recess.

This study is descriped in more detail in Leff, Costigan, & Power (11).

Tips for Parents and Teachers to Prevent Bullying on the Playground

Based upon this study and several similar investigations, we would recommend the following tips for helping parents and teachers talk with youth about school bullying:

  1. Establish a “go to” or point person at school, such as a teacher or playground supervisor;
  2. Avoid bullying hotspots at school (e.g., less well supervised areas on the playground);
  3. Participate in structured and supervised activities during school-recess;
  4. Make good decisions about which activities or groups of friends to join; and
  5. Inform school personnel if a child is being bullied.

In addition, parents and teachers can help students involved in aggressive conflicts by teaching problem-solving strategies to help children slow down and think through potential conflict situations, by modeling and role playing appropriate ways in which to stay calm in social situations, and by building empathy and perspective-taking skills by asking questions and discussing the child’s school day.

Suggested Further Readings

Leff, S. S. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Considerations and future directions. School Psychology Review, 36, 406-412.

Leff, S. S., Angelucci, J., Goldstein, A. B., Cardaciotto, L., Paskewich, B., & Grossman, M. (2007). Using a participatory action research model to create a school-based intervention program for relationally aggressive girls: The Friend to Friend Program. In J. Zins, M. Elias, & C. Maher (Eds.), Bullying, Victimization, and Peer Harassment: Handbook of Prevention and Intervention in Peer Harassment, Victimization, and Bullying (199-218). New York. Haworth Press.

Leff, S. S., Power, T. J., & Goldstein, A. (2004). Outcome measures to assess the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs in the schools. In. D. L. Espelage & S. S. Swearer (Eds). Bullying in American Schools: A Social-Ecological Perspective on Prevention and Intervention (269-294). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

Loeber, R., Wung, P., Keenan, K., Giroux, B., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., Van Kammen, W. B., & Maughan, B. (1993). Developmental pathways in disruptive child behavior. Development and Psychopathology, 5, 101-132.

Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among US youth: Prevalence and association with psychological adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285, 2094-2100.

Nabors, L., Willoughby, J., Leff, S. S., & McMenamin, S. (2001). Promoting inclusion for young children with special needs on playgrounds. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 13, 179-190.


  1. Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among US youth: Prevalence and association with psychological adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285, 2094-2100.
  2. Kazdin, A. E. (1994). Interventions for aggressive and antisocial children. In L. D. Eron, J. H. Gentry, & P. Schegel, (Eds.), Reason to hope: A psychosocial perspective on violence and youth. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  3. Kupersmidt, J. B., Coie, J. D., & Dodge, K. A. (1990). The role of poor peer relationships in the development of disorder. In S. R. Asher & J. D. Coie (Eds.), Peer rejection in childhood. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Kochenderfer, B. J., & Ladd, G. W. (1996). Peer victimization: Cause of consequence of school maladjustment. Child Development, 67, 1305-1317.
  5. Olweus, D. (1978). Aggression in the schools. Bullies and whipping boys. Washington, DC: Hemisphere (Wiley).
  6. Loeber, R., Wung, P., Keenan, K., Giroux, B., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., Van Kammen, W. B., & Maughan, B. (1993). Developmental pathways in disruptive child behavior. Development and Psychopathology, 5, 101-132.
  7. Craig, W. M., & Pepler, D. J. (1997). Observations of bullying and victimization in the schoolyard. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 13, 41-59.
  8. Leff, S. S., Power, T. J., Manz, P. H., Costigan, T. E., & Nabors, L. A. (2001). School-based aggression prevention programs for young children: Current status and implications for violence prevention. School Psychology Review, 30, 344-362.
  9. Leff, S. S., Power, T. J., Costigan, T., & Manz, P. H. (2003). Assessing the climate of the playground and lunchroom: Implications for bullying prevention programming. School Psychology Review, 32, 418-430.
  10. Dowrick, P. W., Power, T. J., Manz, P. H., Ginsburg-Block, M., Leff, S. S., & Kim-Rupnow, S. (2001). Community responsiveness: Examples from under-resourced urban schools. Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community, 21, 71-90.
  11. Leff, S. S., Costigan, T., & Power, T. J. (2004). Using participatory research to develop a playground-based prevention program. Journal of School Psychology, 42, 3 – 21.