Get Kids Moving

Why Physical Play Must Be Part of the Formula When Kids Head Back to School

Preston Blackburn | August 2021

What began abruptly as a stay-at-home mandate two springs ago settled in for significantly longer than any of us expected. Fortunately, with vaccines we are trending back toward normalcy. One of the brightest spots we are seeing is children returning to their classrooms, in-person this fall. 

As we get ready for a school year that is in the classroom rather than virtual, many educators are considering how to make up for suspected learning losses that may have occurred during a year of virtual school (Pearson 2021). From an adult perspective, the first reaction might be to buckle down and power through as much curriculum content as possible to bridge any gaps in acquired knowledge. But is this the right answer? I would argue emphatically, no.

The brain is like a sponge. Once it is full, it cannot continue to absorb until it has been wrung out. As adults, we instinctively take breaks when we are working. We grab a coffee, head to the water cooler, or take a peek at social media. These breaks give the brain time to wring itself out. 

Play is the way kids wring out their brains. Play is a time for resetting and relaxing their focus so their brains are more alert when it is time to go back to the desk. Students’  play was already being restricted before the pandemic. Reports found 44% of school administrators had already reduced recess and PE time to increase academics, despite studies proving that more time in recess leads to bigger gains in the classroom (Reilly 2017). Coming back to school post-shutdown, we must remember to include play-based breaks. It is play that helps kids build strengths and motor patterns needed for classroom success, and it is play that helps kids develop social skills needed for lifetime success.

How play leads to physical skills and strength, leading to classroom success

Kids need strength in their arms, legs, necks, and core to sit at a desk, hold and move a pencil, or keep their bodies still so they can pay attention. Children build strength in play when they run, climb and swing.

Kids need to know where their bodies end and begin so they can transfer that information to the page as they learn to write. How much space does a letter or a sentence take up? What direction are they moving their pencil when they write? Children learn these skills in play when they hide under the bed in a game of hide and seek or shimmy through a fence to explore what lies beyond. 

Kids need to master rhythm so they can internalize patterns which help them understand the rhythm of language, the sequence of writing, the patterns of math, the order of logic and reasoning. They develop rhythm in play while jumping, throwing, and skipping. 

And children’s aerobic activity releases chemicals in their brains that enhance cognition, behavior, and memory, thereby having a direct impact on their learning trajectory. Kids get aerobic in big physical play.

These skills and strengths can only be built in movement. And children move best when they are engaged in big physical play. While some children were able to get outside and engage in big body play during virtual schooling, many did not, spending more time on screens than ever before. As we look to bridge the academic development gap, we need to also bridge the physical development gap that grew for some of our most vulnerable students.  

And we know that recess works. Consider Finland, a country known for scoring in the top levels of international academic exams. Finnish children get 15 minutes of outdoor recess in every hour of classroom time. Outdoor play allows them to explore with their bodies and gives their brains that crucial reset, helping them achieve academic success. Here in the U.S., Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas decided to apply this theory by tripling their recess time to 60 minutes every day. Teachers worried that they would not be able to maintain their academic schedule, but by winter break, every single class was ahead of the academic schedule despite 40 fewer minutes of class time each day. 

How play develops social and emotional skills 

There are the crucial social and emotional skills that can only be developed in play. When humans engage in self-directed, unstructured play, we learn how to socialize, collaborate, and read body language. We learn assertiveness, boundary setting, sharing, and restraint. 

Imagine a playground filled with children engaged in play. The first thing you might notice is the sound. It is usually joyous and loud. Evolution and biology designed us to enjoy this kind of big body, physical play. It builds key physical strengths and skills, like those listed above. It also helps children build lifetime social skills. 

It might look like this: one child initiates a play idea, maybe a new idea or the continuation of a previous game. Another friend may join and suggest a modification, sending the play in a new direction. Over and over, new ideas and new alternatives surface as the play evolves. Inevitably, conflict will arise and possibly one player will become aggressive. When this happens, the other player may pull back, giving signs of displeasure with this sort of play. Or a player may have his idea dismissed and take exception, or there may not be enough equipment or material to continue the play as planned. Whatever the challenge, the players have a choice: find a solution or the play will come to an end.

These exchanges demonstrate the power of unstructured play. Children want the play to continue. They take ownership of the play. They are in charge of the game, they make the rules, and they have a vested interest in continuing the game. Out of this fundamental ownership grows a wealth of learning and development. And, for many children, this sort of interactive, conflict-resolving play was missing from their days during the pandemic shutdown. Many children missed out on a year of the give-and-take of listening to the ideas of peers, of sharing scarce materials, of finding a way to make the game work. The social and emotional learning that comes from this play is just as essential—maybe even more essential—as any academic skills missing from their repertoire. 

How can this kind of play be woven into a child's day? Through both structured and unstructured play. Structured play is adult directed and designed, while children direct unstructured play. Children need both. Finding time for play in the school day is crucial for making a dent in any learning losses from the past year.

To start with, children should have unstructured play at recess every single day, for at least 30 minutes, but the more the better. There is really no excuse for eliminating this break in the day. Removing recess only makes the school day more challenging for everyone, putting stumbling blocks in front of learning.

Structured play is also crucial to children's development. It takes place in PE, but can move beyond the gym and into any learning environment with a little creativity and planning. Using play and movement in teaching helps kids secure neural connections in their brains, anchoring new knowledge. Whether it is adding physical movement to a memorization task or doing push-ups to answer math problems, movement in learning helps children retain what they have learned. Believe it or not, something as simple as spelling practice can be active, sweaty, and fun.

Spelling Frenzy Relay - Work on spelling, practice teamwork, and get aerobic


Children are divided into teams of 2–4 children each. Each team has  a set of three letter words with one letter missing from each one (i.e., H _ T, _ I E, S E _). Scattered on the floor are cards with letters that could complete the words. The first team member finds a letter to complete one word, runs to the opposite side of the room around a cone or chair, comes back to complete the word, and tags the next teammate. Play continues until the teams’words are complete. 

Change Up the Game: 

  • Instead of running try jumping jacks, skipping, hopping, bear crawling
  • Use longer words 
  • Make it a math game by using math facts 

Children can do these games at home as well with siblings or on their own.

There are many ways to add physical movement to academics. Do long division with sidewalk chalk, and make it a dance. Use action words to practice rhyming. Hop down a giant number line. When students move, they learn. 

All of us want children to be successful in all aspects of life. We want them to be strong students, with strong bodies, and strong friendships. These crucial skills suffered during virtual learning. We cannot further jeopardize students’physical, social, and emotional development in the quest for checking off boxes on an academic curriculum. Play-based skills make us better people from the classroom to the boardroom. These are not skills that can be learned from an app, a computer, or flashcards. These skills are only developed in play—play that must be in every school day.


Pearson, Catherine. 2021. Experts Predict What School Will Look Like Next Fall 1/11/21 Huffington Post

Reilly, Katie. 2017. Is Recess Important for Kids or a Waste of Time?  Here’s What Research Says. 10/23/17.

Wong, Alia.  Why Kids Need Recess. 11/15/16. The Atlantic

Physical Development, Advocating for Young Children, Importance of Play