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On Movement, Play, & Learning

Human play has been studied quite extensively with many studies suggesting that children boost learning from games and other play activities . There are several theories about why all mammals (including humans) play- But there is no question around the notion that we do play, and that it is generally good for us! 

"Nothing lights up a child's brain like play" (Stuart Brown 2008). Early play allows children to learn the skills of cooperation, negotiation, turn taking and playing by the rules. These skills grow as the child plays. As a result, children learn the roles and rules of society. Did you know that when children play, they are developing "executive function," which is the ability to self regulate, a skill which has been found to be a better indicator of success in school than the results of an IQ test!  These skills grow as the child plays. As a result, children learn the roles and rules of society. Children with good self-regulation skills are better able to control their emotions, resist impulsive behavior, and become self-disciplined and self controlled. A 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics documents that play promotes not only behavioral development but brain growth as well. 

Play experiences which involve movement and exercise have been shown to improve learning and create meaningful experiences which allow for increased retention of learned information. Research studies have shown that many play-oriented movements have the capacity to improve cognition, including the following:

  • Rough-and-tumble play: There is a known connection between the development of movement and the development of cognition (Diamond 2000), and researchers believe there is a connection between this very physical, rowdy play style and critical periods of brain development (Byers 1998). There is evidence that rough-and-tumble play leads to the release of chemicals affecting the mid-brain, lower forebrain, and the cortex, including areas responsible for decision making and social discrimination.
  • Stand and stretch activities like yoga or "Simon says": Yoga with young children uses play and movement, which are natural processes for children to learn. It integrates various systems of the body and can be an organizing experience for young children. Children need to feel safe, supported, and internally organized to be ready to learn. Yoga also provides a multisensory experience that involves visual, auditory, cognitive, tactile, and kinesthetic learning.
  • Exploratory play including scavenger hunts and sandboxes: This type of play supports a child's language development since children use descriptive words such as ‘This feels slimy’, ’Oh it’s stretchy!’ and ‘That smells disgusting!” It also supports problem solving— children begin to find solutions to problems, like how to transport something from one place to another, or how to share out equipment fairly

There is strong evidence which supports the connection between moving and learning. Evidence from imaging sources and clinical data show that movement enhances cognitive processing while also increasing the number of brain cells. And let us not forget- play and movement is highly motivating and fun. It is a natural part of who we are! When children are playing, in which ever form speaks to them- they are developing skills across domains, and building social connections. How will you support your child's play today?

Sarah McDonnell, MA CCC-SP