Traumatised children in the playground

April 22, 2015

By Psychologist Alison Soutter, Psych4Schools Guest Blogger

boy_alone_playground_iStock_000017633998_MediumIn almost every school there are children suffering from trauma. Often teachers will be unaware that children have experienced or witnessed traumatic incidents, in particular the many children who are affected by domestic violence. These children may have witnessed violence, been injured while trying to intervene and/or been the victims of direct abuse.  Research shows that the severity of the impact on children is similar regardless of whether they witness violence or are victimised themselves.

Children who experience domestic violence come from an environment of unpredictable stress. To survive they learn coping strategies such as defiance, withdrawal and avoidance. Some may imitate the perpetrator and act aggressively towards teachers and classmates. These are all problematic behaviours at school.

The playground can be the most difficult area of the school for children affected by domestic violence. Whilst they often conform in the classroom as they may be used to avoiding being noticed; in the playground they often do not know what to do, and therefore get into trouble.

Many of these children are unable to play because they have spent their lives being watchful and do not know how to let go. However they can be taught to play. Playground games are wonderful for teaching young children the emotional regulation skills lacking in traumatised children. Systematically teaching children to play games like, What’s the time Mr Wolf?, Statues, chasing  or ball games will help to increase their engagement in schooling and diminish the number of playground incidents, while building lifetime skills of regulating their emotions.

There are many ways to teach playground games. You first need a list of games that you might have fun sharing in a staff or department meeting. You could use the Wikipedia list of traditional children’s games as a guide because it provides rules. Teachers can then teach suitable games to their classes.

Teacher aides can help by running playground games at lunchbreaks, under the watchful eye of the playground duty teacher. Another strategy might be to teach the games to senior students and to organise a daily lunchtime roster of children so there are always four who have the task of leading two different games for younger children.

Some schools set up a Playground Passport system whereby children whose behaviour is problematic in the playground spend the first half of their break in a small area being supervised in their play. If they do well they have their Passport stamped and go into the main playground. Here they have to stay within a reasonable distance of the teacher on duty who stamps their passport when the end of break bell goes. After so many stamps they can fully access the playground. Often schools will provide rewards for children who play well as Passport holders.

Many argue that the playground is the most important area in the school because it is where children learn the social skills that will sustain them throughout life. It is also a place where children, whose home life is grim, can have fun. We do however need to be mindful of the need to teach children the skills they need to play and socialise effectively.

Alison Soutter is an experienced Educational Psychologist and a member of the Psychology Board of Australia Examination Committee. She can be contacted at