Some experts believe a decrease in play has resulted in an increase in children who have less-than-optimally developed motor skills and senses.

Recess is a topic in the news now, with parents urging school boards to give children time to move, play and explore. With an increase in standardized testing and resulting longer classroom hours, even legal action has been proposed: In Florida, legislators introduced a bill that would have mandated 20 minutes of unsupervised playtime for elementary school students. The bill was passed by three state House committees, but wasn’t put on the Senate Education Committee’s docket, according to the Florida School Boards Association website.

Massage therapists understand that freewheeling play helps children develop kinesthetic awareness, a sense of one’s own body in space—and according to experts, the benefits don’t stop there.

child with soccer ballPlay & Motor Skills

Children of yesteryear spent hours exploring outdoors on their own, and schools offered activities such as band, recess, physical education and art. Today, due to parents’ perception of increased danger combined with dwindling educational budgets, children are usually found seated at a school desk or highly supervised when not at school—usually indoors.

Some education experts believe a decrease in play- and creativity-related activities has resulted in an increase in physiological problems among children, which include less-than-optimally developed motor skills and senses.

A child exploring his environment outdoors receives the benefit of enriching his sensory experiences and learning to integrate the sensory systems, explained Victoria Nichols, Ph.D., a psychologist at Cognitive Therapy of Staten Island. “We often talk about the five senses being taste, sight, hearing, smell and touch [but] there are two other internal senses that are less talked about,” she added.

Those two senses, Nichols said, are the vestibular system, which is our sense of movement and balance; and the proprioceptive system, which is our sense of where we are in space. Outdoor play provides the opportunity to work on these sensory systems through what Nichols called multichannel experiences.

“For example, a child’s tactile (touch), vision, vestibular and proprioceptive systems are used to run on a grassy field or the sandy shoreline of a beach,” she said. “The child must first see the surface then have the correct motor response by responding to different changes in varying terrain.

“Swings, digging in the sandbox, playing tag or going down a slide all help integrate the sensory systems, which are the foundation to neurological development of children,” Nichols said. “These outdoor activities also help develop core strength, which lays the groundwork for fine and gross motor skills, speech and language development.”

kids on merry-go-roundPlay & Whole-Body Experiences

Nichols and colleague Jonci Jensen, N.D., an assistant professor at Bastyr University, California, are proponents of children having “whole-body” experiences, including dancing, digging in a sandbox, playing on an obstacle courses, rolling a log down a hill, and playing sports or a musical instrument.

As public education focuses increasingly on academics, what might the effects be for the adults of tomorrow?

According to Nichols, “Research indicates that children with poorly developed motor-skills by age five will likely never develop efficient motor-skills.”

And according to the review, “Physical Activity and Student Performance at School,” published in the Journal of School Health in August 2005, in addition to obvious physiological benefits such as improved circulation, reduced stress and better mood, “The structure of physical activity in schools also provides social benefits that could result in academic outcomes.

“Children who learn to cooperate, share, and abide by rules of group physical activities and those who learn to discover and test their physical abilities even in individual activities are likely to feel more connected to their school and community and want to challenge themselves,” the study noted.

kids playingPlay & Social Development

Jensen referred to the HighScope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study, which compared 23-year-olds who were educated in play-based preschool curriculum with those educated in academically oriented preschool curriculum.

“Approximately 6 percent of children in play-oriented early education required special services for social deficits versus 47 percent in academic-oriented curriculum,” she said. “[And] the group that was in academic-oriented preschools had higher arrests for felonies—34 percent compared to 9 percent in the play-oriented group.”

Karen MenehanAbout the Author

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine‘s editor in chief. Her recent articles include “Cannabis is Big Business for Colorado’s Massage Therapists” “California Massage Council Partners with Police Chiefs to Fight Human Trafficking,” and “Meet the MT Who Helped the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team Win Olympic Gold.”