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Building the Brain with Play

A full day of school.

Soccer practice.

Math tutoring.

Piano lessons.

Homework.

Repeat.

When is there time for play?



An increased emphasis on academic readiness has led to children spending more time in organized, enrichment activities and less time playing.


Kids today have 8 fewer hours of free, unstructured play per week⁶.


But that type of play actually helps build the brain and support academic success! So cutting down on play can hinder cognitive development and actually make it harder for kids to succeed in school.


Let’s hop into a common situation at school.


After a 45-minute lesson, Mr. Smith notices that his students are fidgeting, tapping their pencils, and looking all around the room instead of their work. The bell rings for recess and they are all eager to line up to leave.


During recess, they are running, laughing, inviting each other to play, taking turns, negotiating rules, and paying attention to their game. The students return to class more focused and ready to learn because their brains get a break to reset from all the hard work they have been doing to filter out distractions to pay attention in class. At recess, their brains get to work and learn in a more natural, fun way!


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What Research Says about Play and Academics:

There have been decades of research to support play for academic success. The research has found:

  • Daily recess improves reading scores.³

  • Children demonstrate improved attention and cognitive performance after recess.⁴

  • Children engaging in active play for 1 hour daily increased ability to multitask and think creatively.⁷

  • Behaviors on the playground of kindergarteners are greater indicators of first grade academic success than standardized tests.³

  • Children who prefer unstructured play score higher on state-mandated tests than children who prefer other types of play, such as sports, electronics, or social.²


And since we love nature SO MUCH at Bearfoot OT, we wanted to share more research about the impact of outdoor play on academics:

  • Increased time outdoors led to higher digit span test scores, a test that measures executive functions such as short-term memory and attention.⁵

  • Parents reported less inattention and hyperactivity symptoms in children with ADHD following after-school activities in natural outdoor settings than in built outdoor or indoor settings.⁵

  • Children demonstrated increased attention after recess in a natural outdoor environment, which was not seen in children spending recess in built environments.¹


Now we know there is research to support play for academic success, but why does it work?


Introducing….. Attention Restoration Theory!


Attention Restoration Theory says that directed attention (or the voluntary effort to maintain focus and ignore distractions) can lead to attentional fatigue.¹


Which begs the question - what the heck is attentional fatigue?


Attentional fatigue occurs when the brain’s inhibitory system becomes overworked from ignoring distractions and suppressing impulses. This may decrease concentration and problem solving and increase irritability and mistakes.


So! Taking breaks from activities that require directed attention can promote restoration of attention and increase classroom productivity.


Taking breaks in natural, outdoor spaces has been proven to have even better restorative effects by allowing rest from indoor distractions that require much more effort to maintain attention. Imagine having to filter out screaming kids in a small classroom compared to a large field of grass… nature is healing.


These are just a handful of many, MANY studies that show the benefits of play on academic success. We also dove deeper into the specific skills supported by play (such as cognition, socialization, motor skills, self-regulation, mental health, and physical health) in our previous blog post - check it out here!




Five Ways to Encourage More Free Play

1. Allow breaks during homework. Ditch the “sit until you finish your homework” rule and break up long tasks into shorter segments with breaks.

2. Cut back on extracurricular activities. *Gasp* We know! Controversial statement, but we back it up with research. Try to limit your child to one after-school activity to free up time and energy for play.

3. Praise your child’s play. Instead of offering suggestions, sit back and encourage your child’s imagination and creativity. Regularly praise your child with expressions such as, “What a great game you created!”

4. Provide simple, open-ended toys. Encourage loose parts play by providing simple toys such as blocks, balls, or rocks without a defined purpose to promote exploration and creativity. The possibilities are endless!

5. Let your child be bored. Instead of suggesting an activity, allow your child to problem solve to think of an idea themselves. This is HARD, but worth it.

Children build their brain through life experiences not only at school, but also through play. That’s why OTs use play to promote a variety of skills in a fun, joyful way! Check out this resource by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University here for ways to play with your child to support their cognitive development.

Love research? We do too!

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1. Amicone, G., Petruccelli, I., De Dominicis, S., Gherardini, A., Costantino, V., Perucchini, P., & Bonaiuto, M. (2018). Green Breaks: The Restorative Effect of the School Environment's Green Areas on Children's Cognitive Performance. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1579. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01579

2. Holmes, R., Liden, S., & Shin, L. (2013). Children's Thinking Styles, Play, and Academic Performance. American Journal of Play, 5, 219-238.

3. Parrott, H., & Cohen, L. (2020). Advocating for Play: The Benefits of Unstructured Play in Public Schools. School Community Journal, 30(2), 229-254.

4. Ramstetter, C. L., Murray, R., & Garner, A. S. (2010). The crucial role of recess in schools. The Journal of school health, 80(11), 517–526. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1746-1561.2010.00537.x

5. Ulset, V., Vitaro, F., Brendgen, M., Bekkhus, M., & Borge, A. (2017). Time spent outdoors during preschool: Links with children's cognitive and behavioral development. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 52, 69-80.

6. Winerman, L. (2009). Playtime in peril. Monitor on Psychology, 40(8), 50. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/09/child-play

7. Yogman M, Garner A, Hutchinson J, et al; AAP COMMITTEE ON PSYCHOSOCIAL ASPECTS OF CHILD AND FAMILY HEALTH, AAP COUNCIL ON COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA. (2018) The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics.142(3):e20182058


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