physical activity

Play and Child Development

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(Photo Credit: Shutterstock)

By Alicia Cox, MA, AMFT

As many people are now aware, recess and physical education in schools have been greatly reduced in recent years to the detriment of children. Play is an important part of human development and can teach children important skills that they can carry into adulthood. Many of the developmental milestones of school-age children can be accomplished through play and interacting with peers. With more research and more acceptance of this need, I am hopeful that more schools will increase the amount of time school-age children have in their daily schedule for play.

Once children reach elementary school, they have gained stronger and smoother gross motor skills, such as running or standing. They also continue to develop their fine motor skills, which include skills such as grasping or holding small objects. Activities on the playground can help further develop and strengthen these skills. They can participate more regularly in some of these activities and develop mastery over their skills. In addition to developing these physical skills, children at this age require a minimum of one hour of physical activity every day.

Academic achievement is a major focus for school-age children. In early elementary school, children’s curriculum focuses on learning the fundamentals. Around third grade, the curriculum evolves to focus more on finding content in the material presented to them. In addition to these important academic milestones, children begin to increase their ability to focus for longer periods; however, many children need active breaks between long periods of focused attention. By age 6, children should be able to focus for up to 15 minutes at a time. Having a shorter attention span at this age points to the fact that they should be moving around more and physically interacting with their environment. Their brains are not developed enough at this age to focus on something uninterrupted for longer periods. By age 9, children are able to focus for up to an hour but still need play breaks throughout their school day as well.

Another reason to increase play is to help children further develop the social skills required for developing close peer relationships and learning about societal norms and expectations. At this age, children are also likely to test these expectations and may start lying, cheating or stealing. Learning the rules of our society on the playground at this age will be a much safer place to learn the consequences of these actions, instead of learning them as an adult when the consequences are much harsher and more serious. Children need to gain feedback from peers and this can happen more readily on a playground at school.

Most importantly, mixing active play into a person’s day has also shown to increase productivity, even in adults. A recent study has shown that playing a collaborative game can increase productivity by 20 percent. The reasons for this include an increase in creativity, encouraging teamwork, teaching individuals how to set common goals for all those involved, and helping people relax and “blow of steam.” Play has many benefits that will carry into adulthood, such as increased learning capacity. For this reason, play needs to continue to be a constant part of a child’s school day.


Brower, T. (3 March 2019). Boost Productivity 20%: The Surprising Power of Play. Forbes. Retrieved from

School-age children development. (n.d.) In MedlinePlus. Retrieved from

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