More Play May Be the Secret to Better Performance

Children need the stimulation of playing outdoors. A growing body of research highlights the relationships between play, focus and social skills building. Unstructured free play on school playgrounds and at community parks may make it easier for children to focus on challenging school concepts and learn to communicate with others in socially-appropriate ways. The secret to higher-performing students and socially-adept children may be to make play a priority in school districts across the nation. Learn more about how play can support the social and cognitive development of children today.

Play More to Create Healthier Children
Some school districts have had to cut back on physical education, the arts and recess time. This approach can be counterproductive to the developmental needs of students. Movement and exercise is seen as an important aspect of child development. Tom O’Neill, a coordinator for Playworks, a nonprofit helping fund coaching positions and more in low-income schools, shared with PBS NewsHour.

“By playing games, we learn how to socialize with each other. We learn about fair play and respecting each other. If we don’t play those games, how are we supposed to go out and have a conversation with somebody if we can’t even play a game with them?”

Many schools, such as Fox Hill Elementary School, benefit from additional assistance to supplement physical education and play programs. O’Neill, also known as Coach Tom at Fox Hill Elementary School, helps fulfill the needs of the child—physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. Principal Sean Taylor said:

“We understand the stakes are high, and we welcome those stakes. We want the best for our students here as well, but we know that in order to get the best, we have to educate the whole child, which means we have to always take into account their physical health, their mental health, as well as their ability to read, write and do math.”

Children learn soft skills and develop leadership potential from games. Not every child would have exposure to needed social skills such as good sportsmanship, inclusiveness and kindness. Programs offered through Playworks offer coach-guided play opportunities, both indoors and out, to allow children to understand and incorporate such skills.

Play More to Unleash the Mind
In countries like Finland, where 1st graders spend 1.5 hours daily on “unstructured outdoor play” and recess, children are given ample opportunity to move freely on the playground. This outdoor play is necessary to keep kids awake and focused during school hours. Too much time spent sitting still and the brain goes on sleep mode. Debbie Rhea, associate dean of the Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and director of Project ISIS, wrote:

“When a human sits for longer than 20 minutes, the physiology of the brain and body changes. Gravity begins to pool blood into the hamstrings, robbing the brain of needed oxygen and glucose, or brain fuel. The brain essentially just falls asleep when we sit for too long. Moving and being active stimulates the neurons that fire in the brain. When you are sitting, those neurons don’t fire.”

The mind and body do not work separately from each other. The body knows how to conserve resources. This translates to less activity in the brain during long stretches of seated work. Regular physical activity supports neuron activity in the mind. Kids’ bodies crave physical activity and their minds benefit. Play is needed for the healthy physical and mental development of children. Recess time, outdoor play and games make it easier for children to focus on academic tasks and may reduce disruptions in the classroom. Kim Morrow, third grade teacher, said of students after recess or physical activity:

“It’s like a different class. You can tell they have had a good time. They have expended a lot of energy and they are ready to focus and settle down.”

Or as Lizzy Maze, a student at Fox Hill Elementary, put it:
“You have to get all the wiggles out. Just kind of have a little fun, so now you’re really tired, so you are ready to do some work.”


Teachers and Students Approve of Play

American Parks Company is dedicated to meeting the developmental needs of children where they play. Contact our team for expert advice on school or park playground design.