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Smiling girl playing in autumn park

The Need for Play

I took my 4-year-old granddaughter to the playground last week. She loves to play. She especially loves to play outside and with friends. She walked up to a child about her own age and size, a potential new friend, and said, “My name is Annabel. Do you want to play with me? Tag! You’re it!” And the game began.

Play is natural for children and the universal language they use to communicate and engage. Many important things were happening that day on the playground. As they ran, jumped, ducked, and tumbled, they were increasing coordination, developing agility, and strengthening their muscles. Most exciting to me, they were building and priming their brains for learning.

Play is a whole-brain activity. When children play, every part of the brain is communicating and creating a network of interconnected neurons. As Annabel and her new friend raced back and forth and up and down on the playground structure, their brains were creating cognitive maps and developing strategies for risk taking and decision making. Which way do I turn to outsmart the other? How fast can I run?

As I watched Annabel and her new friend, I remembered an article that I read on school-aged children and fidgeting. The author was a pediatric occupational therapist and she wrote, “Children need to move their bodies in all directions for hours at a time.” Because children are naturally inclined to move, it can be difficult to sit still and pay attention. Fidgeting is a natural impulse that children have to wake up the brain. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when we tell children to sit still and pay attention, their brain is not in optimal learning mode.

Children need to move at school and at home. When I talk with a parent whose child is struggling or frustrated by homework, I suggest the child take a brain break every few minutes. During a brain break, the child gets up from the table or desk to move their body. They can stretch, take a walk around the house, or shake their bodies to some rhythmic beat. When they come back to the task of homework, they are ready to focus again.

I recently heard of the campaign More Recess for Virginians. They champion the increase of active play time during the school day. As part of the campaign’s efforts, there was a bill passed and signed by Governor Ralph Northam giving school districts in the Commonwealth of Virginia the option of providing more recess to children. Now that’s speaking my language!

As Annabel and her new friend are both heading to kindergarten in the fall, it’s clear to me that one of the best ways to help children succeed academically is to support their natural desire for unstructured, active play, which in turn will prime their brains for learning and support their ability to sit still and pay attention when necessary. Now my only dilemma is, who will I play with while Annabel is at school?

To learn more about the recess bill or to get involved in promoting play in schools visit

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About Michele Tryon, CCLS

About Michele  Tryon, CCLS Michele Tryon, CHKD community outreach coordinator and parent educator has worked with children and families for 30 years, providing services in the hospital, home, school and community setting. Michele is a Certified Child Life Specialist, a Certified Positive Discipline™ parent educator, a nationally recognized trainer/consultant for Nurturing Parenting Programs™ and co-author of The Nurturing Program for Parents and Their Children with Special Needs and Health Challenges©.