Movement Play

Movement Play is key to kids' development

Children grow through many stages of physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development as they mature, and movement play is a big part of all three. Movement play activities are fundamental to children’s developing into capable adolescents and resilient adults. They are also some of the most fun and engaging forms of play for children of all ages, but especially for young children.

In venues like playgrounds and schoolyards, children are innately motivated to move and socialize. While they run, swing, climb, and laugh with other children they are simultaneously developing their physical-motor skills (understanding how fast they can run or how far they can jump, for instance), their cognitive abilities (for example, assessing the risk of the next step in a climb), and their social-emotional skills (such as handling a playmate’s emotions). We can encourage the development of these skills by having kids use them in isolation—for instance, by having them  cut out paper figures or think through math problems —but children’s abilities develop more and faster during movement play, when all these skills are used at the same time. Movement play makes kids stronger, more coordinated, more knowledgeable, and more emotionally competent. This is especially true when movement play activities are freely chosen and self-directed by the youngster as in free play; when adults direct these activities they are less beneficial.

The sections below describe each of the three categories of child development separately, but keep in mind that they operate simultaneously and synergistically for children in movement play activities.  The six photos and captions show and explain them operating simultaneously. 

young black boy on playground climber
Photo 1 - As this boy’s legs push and arms pull him up each notch a lot is happening within his body (physical) and mind (cognitive). As he lifts his full body weight, he is developing muscle control and strength. As he reaches for each notch his brain is processing the touch signals from his hands, arms, legs and feet and developing the ability to coordinate control of his muscles to remain stable. He is totally focused; by following his instinct to master the climb he experiences the pleasure of connecting to his intrinsic-self - he’s in a play state and developing the confidence to act independently of external rewards.
Young girl hanging upside down on a climber
Photo 2 - This girl had to climb up the back side of the apparatus then hook her legs around the top bar and carefully step her body down the other side. All those movements involved the coordinating and strengthening of muscles (physical) and assessment of the risk (cognitive) of falling head-first into gravel. She is joyful and enchanted (cognitive) by her posture - she is in a play state. Her hand gestures are inviting connection with others (social-emotional). As in Photo 1, she followed her instincts and is developing the ability to act independently, without needing external approval.

Physical Development

Movement play matures many different physical skills: walking, running, jumping, and climbing – locomotor skills – as well as bending, twisting, and stretching – stationary or non-locomotor skills (Frost, J. – Developmental Benefits). 

No one has to tell a healthy kid to walk, run, or bend; they are innately attracted to these activities. trigger the natural play circuits that are built into our brains. Once activated, those play circuits light up motor circuits (among others) located in the cerebellum and cortex. Essentially, we have a biological drive to move and play, and that drive is especially strong in children. Kids want to develop these physical skills. They find joy in using and mastering the complex body dynamics of movement play. Physical skills are developed naturally in schoolyards and playgrounds during a free play version of movement play.

The play-based drive to master movement skills (for example, going from walking to running to skipping) proceeds naturally when children are given the freedom to choose and direct their movement play. When they are walking, running, skipping, and so on they are literally wiring their brains—creating neural pathways that will be available to them for the rest of their life (which is why, barring injury, you never forget how to ride a bike).

Children should mature from gross to fine motor skills before starting adult-organized sports, dance, gymnastics, martial arts, and similar programs (Frost, Sunderlin, eds).

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development is about cultivating thinking skills. Some thinking skills that mature through movement play include understanding, categorizing, and evaluating—the abilities central to making basic decisions such as when to take a risk and when to avoid one. Examples of thinking skills developing in a young child on the Playground:

Understanding – Big kids climb these bars much faster than I do. 
Categorization – The ground here is hard, the other playground has soft ground.
Evaluation – Am I swinging slow enough to jump off this swing safely?
Memorization – That boy was at the park the last time I was here.
Visual processing – That merry-go-round is going slow; it was going much faster before.
Focus – I’m going to keep shoveling sand until this bucket is full.
Handle distractions – that boy has a fun toy, but I’m going to keep filling this bucket.
Multitask – I can talk to the girl next to me while I climb on these bars.

As these thoughts occur to children, unique neural pathways are forming in their brains. Those early neural pathways will become the foundations for more sophisticated forms of understanding, categorizing, remembering and so on.

Neuroscience research has shown that movement play enhances the growth of neurons and the connections among neurons in the pre-frontal cortex—the area of our brains where executive functioning happens (Burgdorf). “Executive Function” skills are what enable humans to make the thousands of decisions we face in daily life.

Movement is a way we learn about ourselves. The bodily pleasure of movement is a joyful aspect of our lives. Many adults have lost connection to that joy. It would do us good to reconnect to that joy and experience the rejuvenation it offers—a chance to offset the stress created by the difficulties and anxieties of adult life (Sheets-Johnstone).

Photo 3 - This toddler had to develop in his mind the confidence (cognitive) to step onto a platform that is not stabile, it moves under him. He is still tentative; he’s assessing whether to continue further on the platform or get off (cognitive).
Photo 4 - Mastery! He decided to go for it; that the risk of falling from the platform was less than his ability to handle the movement (cognitive). He made it to the helm and is now ready to move to the next level of mastery; he’s going to move the platform under his control!
Photo 5 - The most fundamental social-emotional act is taking place here with child and mom facing each other; they are attuned to each other. When a child-mom are attuned to each other the child’s brain develops the neural pathways that enable the child to trust and connect to other people. Child’s experience of the movement enhances the impact of attunement. The child’s cerebellum is active in any movement and that combined with the brain activity from attunement causes large areas of the brain to be stimulated and many neural pathways to be created. The new pathways from this moving, playful state integrate areas of the brain that might not otherwise communicate; connecting those brain areas supports development of language and other skills.
Photo 6 - These kids had to speak with each other and feel a sense of trust in order to agree to join and play together on the the teeter totter. One or more of these children, particularly the younger ones, may not yet recognize the importance of the trust factor in choosing who to play with; if their play on the teeter totter goes smoothly they will innately develop trust that playing with these particular children is safe. If some of the children act aggressively, moving the teeter totter fast or with great force that scares the others, they will learn to be cautious when choosing who to play with; over time they will recognize trust as an important factor in making decisions of who to play with, work with or depend on.

Social-Emotional Development

The previous two sections explain how a child’s physical and cognitive skills grow together and reinforce each other during movement play. Neuroscience research has shown that emotion and cognition—feeling and thinking—work together. Both are part of how kids size up a situation and decide how to behave. (Shonkoff, Phillips) Children playing together at a playground are developing social-emotional skills alongside their physical and cognitive skills.

Social and emotional development is about how well children manage emotions: understanding what they are feeling, regulating their strong feelings, and recognizing the feelings of others. Healthy social-emotional development gives children self-confidence, teaches empathy, and helps them create and sustain friendships. Growth in these skills helps children connect with family, peers, teachers, etc., and they create a foundation for growing a sense of belonging (to a family, a school class, a team, a community, and so on).
In movement play, children learn about their impact on others and others’ impact on them (Am I hurting that kid? Is that kid hurting me?). They learn about how others respond to their own emotions: If I get angry at my friend they may stop being friendly to me. This teaches kids to regulate their own anger, or tolerate or manage their friend’s anger. (Shonkoff, Phillips). They learn how and when to stand up for themselves and others, and how to include others so no one gets angry.

We don’t often link play and morality, but studies of other mammals provide evidence that they are biologically related. Members of a group of mammals don’t want to be hurt and so do not hurt others; members who are not playful or are overly aggressive are be banned from the group by members. (Bekoff, M.)

By growing their social-emotional skills, young children learn to handle more complex social interactions, to be effective group activities, and to build the social support crucial to healthy human functioning.

Kids with healthy social-emotional skills are more likely to succeed in school, work, and life. In one study, children’s recess behavior as kindergarteners — the level of their social-emotional skills — was a significant predictor of their first-grade academic achievement (Singer, Golinkoff, Pasek ) .

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