Why is play vital for physical development?

Gross motor or exercise play is very common and typically occupies around 20% of children’s behaviour by 4-5 years of age.

The evidence suggests it supports the development of whole body and hand-eye co-ordination, is important in building strength and endurance, and, of course, is vital in giving children an early sense of themselves as physically able, the experience of enjoying physical activity and developing physical skills, and so forms the basis for a healthy, active life style. In addition, exercise releases a class of neurotransmitters in the brain called ‘endorphins’ which give us a feeling of well-being and contribute significantly to mental alertness, the ability to concentrate and maintain attention. Ratey & Hagerman (2008) provide an enthusiastic review of the relation between exercise and brain functioning, and state that:

‘exercise cues the building blocks of learning in the brain and is the single most powerful tool to optimise brain function.’

Maude (2008) The way physical development happens is described by Maude (2008) as being controlled by three principles The cephalo-caudal principle refers to the fact that development occurs from the head down to the feet i.e. that children develop control of their upper limbs before that of their lower limbs. The principle of proximo-distal development indicates that growth occurs from the centre of the body out towards the extremities i.e. that the central organs are fully functioning at birth but the young child’s hands are not fully formed until they are 5 or 6 years old. The principle of differentiation refers to the development, both within the brain and the body of the young child, from an undifferentiated, global response (eg: to any pain or discomfort) to an increasingly specific response as the child matures. These principles of development each have implications for what we can expect from the young child in development and what are appropriate activities to engage them in to support their developing physical literacy.

Body awareness develops gradually. Children love spinning around, being upside down, running and other activities which involve using their muscles to lift, push and pull objects around. These activities relate to children developing their body awareness, their co-ordination and their awareness of their body in space. As referred to in the film, this is termed proprioception, and is a brain function which involves the co-ordination of information from all our five senses and the vestibular system. The latter is located in the inner ear, and comprises two components: the semicircular canal system, which indicates rotational movements and is responsible for our sense of balance; and the ‘otoliths’ which are membranes sensitive to linear accelerations, and which help with eye-head-body co-ordination as we move through space.

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Like many systems in the human brain, the proprioception system is dependent upon experience for its fullest development, and physical experiences in early childhood, when the brain is undertaking its major period of growth and structural change, is highly significant in developing these abilities. This is particularly important for children with ‘dyspraxia’, who have difficulties with co-ordination and movement tasks, and who will find many physical activities particularly challenging. These children can be greatly helped in their development of physical abilities by the full range of physical play, and early childhood educators can provide important support in this regard. Drew (2007) and Goddard Blythe (2012) provide excellent reviews of the nature of dyspraxia and programs of physical activity which are both appropriate for and enormously helpful for children who suffer from these difficulties.

References and further reading

  • Drew, S. (2007). Including Children with Dyspraxia in the Foundation Stage. London: A.C.Black.
  • Goddard-Blythe, S. (2012). Assessing Neuro-Motor Readiness for Learning. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

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