Children play on balance bar at playgroundPlaying tag, jumping rope, swimming underwater—children need to move their bodies a lot throughout the day. Moving around feels good, gives children energy, burns calories, and also helps develop many other skills. Big body movements involved in activities like running, throwing balls, and swinging bats develop strength and coordination. Crawling enhances strength, balance, and visual acuity. When children move in sports and games like tag, they develop communication and social skills. Dancing and pretend play movements plant the seeds for creative thinking and problem-solving. Through fine motor movements such as drawing, coloring, and building with small blocks, children practice control and gain the self-confidence needed for life-long learning.

Movement and play go hand-in-hand! With creative design, your playspace will naturally nurture and encourage lots of movement. Select some toys that get children to move their bodies, like tricycles and plastic toy cars. Simple jump ropes, plastic balls, sit-and-spins, swings, or slides also do the trick. Leave room for children to run back-and-forth in a game of tag, roll their big wheels, or just to roll on the ground a little.

(Photo courtesy of Landscape Structures)


Children play on roller structure at playgroundMore than ever before, children need playspaces that encourage large muscle movement. Childhood obesity is on the rise, schools are eliminating recess, and children's schedules are as tightly packed as adults'. Yet experts maintain that unstructured large muscle activities are critical. Children need to exercise their bodies and move freely through their environments. Children also need space to play games involving running, jumping, sliding, swinging, and climbing.

In big muscle activities, children develop both gross and fine motor skills. They refine their coordination and balance when they kick and throw balls, roll down the hill, and play tag. Cross-lateral movements (i.e. right arm to left leg) help children learn to read and write.

Children also develop social and cognitive skills during large muscle play by employing their imaginations to invent scenarios and rules. When they master games, they feel confident and proud. They negotiate relationships, experience the importance of working in teams, and develop friendships when they play large muscle games together.

There are many ways to include large muscle play in your playspace, even if your actual area is small. Try to set aside at least one open space for running, jumping, rolling, and game playing. Children exercise large muscles on elevated structures, too, when they run across the ramps and platforms. Include children with disabilities by using accessible surfaces, clear signs, and distinct colors.

Manufacturers make a variety of equipment and toys for both outdoor and indoor playspaces. For outdoor playspaces, get children moving with hanging rings and bars, balance beams, and climbing walls. Inside, include a few jumping ropes and bouncing balls. It's lots of fun to design an obstacle course with hula hoops and plastic cones!

(Photo from Kompan)

Manipulatives and Small Muscle

Art activities require manipulationManipulatives are physical play materials that children hold, stack, and sort such as blocks, plastic shapes, LEGOs, Lincoln logs, and more. When children manipulate these objects during play, they are not only having fun, they are also learning important math and critical thinking skills.

As they manipulate play objects, children begin to learn abstract concepts. A bridge is built from the concrete to the abstract. Children explore cause and effect, identify patterns, create logic maps, and match like objects. They begin to understand average as they play with varying objects heights, weights, depths, and lengths.

Manipulatives are believed to be particularly important in developing early math and science skills. Children who might struggle to learn math in traditional classrooms sometimes find manipulative play helps aid their understanding.

In an outdoor playspace, you can encourage manipulative play in sandboxes or with water tables. The manipulatives can be simple and inexpensive. Foam and cardboard blocks, different plastic shapes (stars, triangles), lots of different sizes and materials—these will all encourage children to build, sort, match, and manipulate!

Helpful links

Cuffaro, Harriet. (2006) Block building: Opportunities for learning.

Johnson, Louise. (2005). Math manipulatives. International Childrens Education.

Spear-Swerling, Louise. (2006). The Use of manipulatives in mathematics instruction. LD Online (WETA).