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Preschool and beyond: Attention and achievement

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From the Book “Big Body Play”

"From F.M. Carlson, Big Body Play: Why Boisterous, Vigorous, and Very Physical Play Is Essential to Children's Development and Learning, (Washington, DC: NAEYC, 2011), 42-43. Copyright © 2011 NAEYC. Posted with permission from NAEYC. This book is available from NAEYC at

Bjorklund and Brown (1998) put plainly when they wrote, “Despite the social consequences of [rough-and-tumble] activity, the mechanisms involved are every bit as ‘cognitive’ as are those associated with math seat-work” (604). Vigorous physical activity, the kind that is associated with unstructured big body play, indeed has a relationship to cognitive and academic performance (Tomporowski et al. 2008).

Big body play gets children’s blood going and minds moving, or rather, gets the mind settled; it has been linked to better attention and concentration skills in school (Hillman et al. 2005; Shephard 1996; Taras 2005). By providing regular opportunities for physical activity and at least an hour a day for sustained, moderate to vigorous, unstructured physical play, adults not only support healthy big body play but also support children’s periods of quiet attention: Children tend to remain calm for longer periods of time following the very active play (Scott & Panksepp 2003).

A new kindergarten teacher shared his experience:

I was teaching my heart out, but I did not feel that my students were learning. They were constantly touching each other, pulling hair, rolling on the floor, standing up, and playing with their jackets and clothes. Then one day, I told myself that I had tried things the conventional way, and now I was going to try things my way. From then on, I had my students up and moving. We sang songs and marched around the room to learn the days of the week and the months of the year. We did daily physical exercises. We did math by creating patterns with our bodies, such as snap, clap, stomp and jump, run, wiggle. We did skip-counting using hip hop music that the kids were familiar with. After a few days of this, my students were able to sit and listen during the times that required them to do so. They were not touching each other, pulling hair, rolling on the floor, standing up, or playing with their jackets and clothes. My kids were learning, and they were happy. True teaching was taking place.

Recent studies examining thousands of children show that active physical activity and play are related to better performance in both reading and mathematics (Grissom 2005; Stevens et al. 2008).

As previously noted, it seems to be that it is vigorous, active play –rather than a traditional physical education curriculum per se, which may not provide an intense bout of activity—that is associated with higher academic performance (Coe et al. 2006). Children’s self-determined rough-and-tumble play is good for the mind as well as the body.

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Boisterous, rowdy, loud, vigorous, rough, exuberant, and always physical in nature, big body play is the naturally occurring play style that gives children the opportunities they need for overall optimum development.

From birth, children gather enormous information from their bodies. They learn about themselves, and about how they affect the environment and others in it. This self-knowledge and world knowledge forms the foundation for future exploration and learning. This foundation, built on ample opportunities to learn about their own bodies, boundaries, strength, needs, abilities, power, and control, can provide young children the physical, social-emotional, and thinking skills to have healthy, rewarding experiences and successful relationships in early childhood and throughout their lives.

Hanging from the monkey bars and playing Tag and soccer is a kind of serious business. But it’s not the process that is serious—playing is resolutely not serious—it’s the results that are serious, in a good way. As much as children need rough, rowdy play for staying physically fit, they need it even more to learn about the complex social dynamics amongst friends and peers, to gain problem-solving experience, to practice empathy and negotiation skills, and to be ready to sit and focus inside the classroom when that is required.

As discussed in the next chapter, if we adults can provide the time, space, and encouragement for safe big body play, we will be rewarded. We will see children who show delight and exuberance; who are spontaneous and creative in their play; who can “run wild” and then sit calmly, ready to focus; and who are confident in themselves and selfless toward their peers.

Ask Dr. Susan