The Benefits Of Action Play

Children playing

Parks and play areas are full of children climbing, running, leaping, cycling, and generally having fun. In a previous blog I mentioned the benefits of different types of play, now we are going to look more closely at physical activity play or what I call action play.

Action and exercise play in infancy and early childhood

Exercise play begins early in a baby’s life; moving around helps young babies to build up their muscles and learn about the world. Even before a baby can move around, independently, they kick their legs and wave their arms vigorously whilst smiling and cooing at their parents.  Parents help and encourage their babies to take their first steps by letting them bounce up and down while being held. Then later babies race up and down with their baby walkers before taking their first independent steps. Walking transforms babies into toddlers and enables them to see the world in an entirely different way.

Exercise play is important for young children as they are more likely to get restless after sitting for a long period. Interestingly, exercise play can benefit young children by giving them a break from a cognitively demanding task – exercise play helps young children to space out their thinking time.

Boy at playground

Action Play for Boys and Girls

Are there differences in how boys and girls play? Research has shown that hormones influence how children play and who they choose to play with. Boys, even at nursery age, tend to play with boys and girls play with girls. By age 4 children are playing with same-sex playmates three times as much and this increases to over ten times as much by the time children are 6 years old. There are also differences in the types of play that boys and girls engage in. Researchers point to hormonal influences in the rough and noisy movements among boys and the calm and gentle actions among girls. There is certainly one type of play that is more popular amongst boys – that is rough and tumble.

Rough and Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play includes play fighting and play chasing; this type of play increases from toddler to primary school age. Boys tend to engage in more rough and tumble play than girls. Although rough and tumble looks like real fighting and chasing it can be easily distinguished from real fighting if you just look at the children’s faces. There is plenty of smiling and laughter if it is rough and tumble whilst the facial expressions are entirely different if it is a real fight e.g. tearful and frowning. Any kicks and blows in rough and tumble do not make contact and each child tends to take a turn at being the one chased or ‘on top’.

 

Children on trampoline

Interestingly, researchers have found that in primary schools only 1% of rough and tumble play turns into real fighting while teachers tend to think it is more like 30%. Rough and tumble play tends to take place between friends so it makes sense that it will rarely turn into real fighting.

What do parents think? Do your boys and girls play differently? If so, is it because we influence them with the types of toys that we give to them and the way that we treat them? Or do boys and girls play differently regardless of the toys available?

DR Julie Coultas

DR. JULIE COULTAS IS AN EVOLUTIONARY SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGIST WITH A PARTICULAR INTEREST IN CHILDHOOD SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND PLAY. SHE IS AN HONORARY RESEARCH FELLOW IN THE DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX. SHE HAS BEEN THE DEVELOPMENTAL EXPERT FOR AN INTERNATIONAL TOY COMPANY FOR OVER 10 YEARS. JULIE HAS ADVISED PARENTS AND PARENTS-TO-BE ON THE DEVELOPMENTAL ASPECTS OF PLAY. SHE HAS ALSO WORKED ON UK GOVERNMENT EDUCATION PROJECTS AND SWEDISH RESEARCH COUNCIL CULTURAL EVOLUTION PROJECTS. HER RESEARCH AND TEACHING FOCUS ON: SOCIAL INFLUENCE, SOCIAL LEARNING, SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT, AND THE EMOTIONS AND DEVELOPMENT.

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