As the academic school year is underway in the Northern Hemisphere and many other parts of the world, teachers and students face challenges that are often not part of the curriculum on differential equations or the miracle of mitosis. These challenges include how to handle other human beings, especially when other human beings are not being nice to us.

Many of the lessons we learn about how to handle ourselves in relation to others are not found on the answer keys to state exams. They happen in the real-life interactions with others, often outside the classroom in the sandbox. We often teach our young children how to take tests, but not what to do when Jane says something that hurts us. We often leave them to their own devices or step in to handle any conflicts ourselves. As a result, our children may learn to pretend Jane’s mean comment was ‘just a joke,’ not realize their own role in making things better because an adult will always intervene, or lash out in retaliation. Learning to navigate tricky human relationships doesn’t just miraculously happen one day nor are they often discussed during the lesson on multiplication (…though possible).

So much of the focus on educational outcomes have been on coloring inside the lines and test question bubbles over the last several decades, rather than being in our humanness. As evidence around the critical success factors of social emotional intelligence, inter-relational skills, and adaptability continue to build, some schools are folding back into class lessons how to be human and engage with others in such ways that we manage our internal and external relationships and conflicts with greater resilience, equanimity, and balance. Rather than ‘wasting’ time on ‘soft skills’ like emotional regulation and communication, these critical, fundamental skills have shown to have very real impact. For example, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) found that teaching children how to more effectively engage with oneself and others may increase wellbeing by 24% and academic performance by 27%. It’s not just about feeling good, but students actually do better filling out those test bubbles when they are more adept at handling being and relating to other humans. Of course, this translates into adulthood. Study after study suggest that the skills to be and relate to others are the differentiating factors between good and star performers later on real life. IQ can only go so far – up to 90% of what sets star senior leaders apart are not their technical or cognitive capabilities, but their ability to be in their humanness.

But how do we learn to be skillful with the very human challenges of being human?

Many of these lessons happen in the sandbox. The research around play and recess is tough to ignore (although it often gets ignored). The lessons learned in the sandbox are wide-ranging, from increased ability to focus, to problem-solving, negotiation, and self-control skills, to necessary physical health benefits. Children learn to navigate the tricky waters of the human relationships – with limited resources of swings and bouncy balls, who gets to play with what and with whom, and how do I manage my emotions without shoving Bobby down the slide when he hurts my feelings?

As play and recess have fallen victim at many schools to the pressures of getting students ready to be competitive for college and in the “real” world, are we actually doing a disservice to the next generation – and our future – by preparing young people for a world fashioned after today, rather than for an unknown future that requires dexterity of mind and depth of connection? In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has made a policy statement about the critical need for children to have recess in between cognitive challenges such that they can actually process information better. They can also learn to deal with tricky human relationships with greater confidence and care, learning to speak up for themselves and others around them.

So, what are some of these sandbox lessons to cultivate?

  1. Call it out

It is easy for children – and adults – to passively allow hurtful comments and ‘jokes.’ Don’t rock the boat; don’t make a scene; don’t be ‘that person,’ children are often told. Yet instead of stepping in and resolving the situation, perhaps it is possible to empower them to speak up for themselves and others with a clear understanding of what their intention is – is it to hurt the other person or to heal the relationship? The latter holds far more power.

  • Care, not cave

When someone has caused an affront to us, it is natural to feel hurt and angry. It becomes easy to give into our default negative narratives about that person. Rather than caving into unproductive emotions, how might teaching children to care about the other person and relationship ? Doing so doesn’t mean that they ignore the affront; rather, it allows them to face the affront head on with genuine concern.

  • Communicate with compassion

Watching children interact on the playground is often like watching raw human emotion in real time. Yet fundamentally, most children, regardless of disagreements, will act with compassion. Countless stories of children stopping to help a fallen competitor during a race demonstrate that they naturally understand how to demonstrate compassion. Paying attention to and celebrating these moments can encourage these learnings to become the default.

Despite the best efforts and intentions of teachers, students, and parents, the current infrastructure of education systems sometimes seem to be gearing young people more for being good at taking exams and focusing on their own needs and wants. What is often missing in education is the cultivation of how to engage with others in meaningful ways so they recognize that they have the agency to shift things positively, especially when Mary steals their toy truck at the playground.

Let’s bring the sandbox back.