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What is physical play? Physical play is any type of play where children move their bodies. When children are young this may be as simple as a game of peek-a-boo or patty cake. As children get older and acquire more physical skills, their physical play expands to include activities like a riding bike, participating in team sports (such as soccer and basketball), playing individual sports (like gymnastics or track) and engaging in free play during school recess.

Bot throwing rings outside

Various studies have demonstrated physical play helps children learn how to take risks, how to judge if their actions may harm themselves or others, and how to win and lose graciously. Research has also linked physical play with improved attention and working memory,. Additional studies have suggested that regular school recess leads to cognitive and academic gains throughout a child’s life.

Ways to incorporate physical play into daily life:

  • Build movement into daily activities. Research shows that outdoor physical play is especially beneficial for brain development. Work outdoor physical play into your routine by trying to walk, cycle, or take public transport to places instead of driving. You might, for example, bike to school or the library, or take the bus to pharmacy and then walk home. If you live in a place where this isn’t an option, make time for regular family walks, perhaps after dinner or on the weekends.
  • Play mirroring games. Ask children to imitate your movements through games like follow-the-leader or Simon Says. Give them opportunities to take the lead so that you can copy them. You can either set aside time for this, or do it in the car, in the kitchen, or in between other tasks. The movements can be as simple as nodding your head, wiggling your fingers, or rolling your shoulders, all of which can be done while doing other things.
  • Use movement as motivation. Having trouble getting your child to stop playing so they can wash their hands, get in the car, or brush their teeth? Make it fun by incorporating movement! Challenge your children to skip, hop, or crawl to where they need to go. Put on music and ask them to dance their way through a chore like putting away laundry or setting the table. See if they can make their bed while balancing on one foot. Ask your children to suggest “movement challenges”. When you can, join in the fun – daily tasks are a lot more fun with movement!
  • Play charades. Try acting out different types of animals, daily activities like reading a book or combing your hair, or emotions like happiness, sadness, and surprise. This could be a family activity that takes place during a dedicated time – such as a game night – or it could be something to pass the time in a waiting room or to entertain children between tasks. (For more ideas on charades topics for young children, check out 127 Good Charades Ideas for Kids to Act Out)
  • Do clapping games. With young children, you can play pat-a-cake or peek-a-boo. As they get older, you can teach children more complex clapping routines, or ask them to teach you what they’ve learned in school. If you don’t know clapping routines, play a simple game of clapping out a rhythm and ask your child to imitate it. Start with 4-5 beats for young children and work up to more complex routines as they get older.
  • Engage in sports together. Introduce children to physical activities you enjoy. Play catch, kick a soccer ball, climb a rock wall, go swimming, or shoot hoops. As children get older, you may want to learn something together, like jumping rope tricks, handstands, yoga, or cartwheels. Do something that you both enjoy!

Father with two sons swimming