Free Play Is Even More Beneficial Than PE Classes

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
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“Go outside and play” was a phrase many of us remember hearing from our own childhoods, and how many times do you, as a parent, tell your kid to go outside and play (assuming you have the means to do so)? All the time, right?

Outdoor physical activity is good for kids (no surprise there!), but a study coming out of Glasgow, Scotland, confirmed what we’ve known all along. In fact, the study showed that playing outside was more beneficial to kids than a formal physical education class. That’s right, playing outside is better for kids than PE class in school.

So what does this all mean? Well, for one thing, recess should be extended and gym class should include more time to free play outdoors. Seven schools in Glasgow participated in a trial that showed encouraging children to play a sport or free play outside increased their activity by about a half-hour each day.

Free play is more flexible, like the kind of play that happens during recess, whereas the physical activity in PE class is often more structured and rule-based. Given the choice, children seem to thrive with the less structured option.

In the program, several times a week, instead of PE, students had the option to do something like throw and/or catch a ball or jump for a half-hour. Then for another half-hour, they had free play time, which also had some basic play things like balls and jump ropes.

With this structure, the school was fulfilling the recommendation that kids get a full hour of physical activity each day — something that has become increasingly more difficult — while also keeping the kids entertained. Very few children today are actually achieving that full hour, especially given that, in the United States, recess and opportunities for free play is being cut in favor of more academic time.

PE is still a part of the curriculum, but even that has become more academic and structured. And structure, even if it’s designed to be fun, is part of the problem.

To get away from the “structured” nature of PE, Inspiring Scotland, a school in Scotland adapted the new initiative to create play zones for the students that includes areas for soccer, jump rope and hula hoops, and Frisbee.

“Active Play is simple: it boosts physical activity in children and helps them develop fundamental movement skills such as coordination and balance,” said a spokesperson for Inspiring Scotland. Giving the kids options encourages them to take more of an interest in physical activity. That is not to say that PE has been written off completely; rather, the play zones are offering in tandem to a regular PE curriculum.

Here in the States, play zones could be a great companion to recess, and could force schools to stop cutting it. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “minimizing or eliminating recess may be counterproductive to academic achievement, as a growing body of evidence suggests that recess promotes not only physical health and social development but also cognitive performance.”

A study published by Preventative Medicine Reports found that before the introduction of this new program, the children spent three hours of their day inactive — which is about half the time that they are in school. After the initiative was introduced, student’s sedentary behavior decreased by 18.6% and moderate to vigorous activity increased by 2.8%.

“Active play is an under-researched area but there is increasing interest in its potential to increase physical activity,” says Avril Johnstone, a researcher at Strathclyde’s University’s physical activity for health group. As childhood obesity and screen time become increasingly more important issues for American children, it would be helpful for those in charge to find ways for children to have more opportunities to play and move their bodies.

And since they spend most of their time in school, school is the obvious place for that change to happen.

Currently, there is no indication that this initiative will be making its way across the pond to the U.S. But if we’re smart, it’s something we’ll look into.

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