Supporting Your Child's Innate Need for Gross Motor Play

Gross motor play (also known as “rough play” or “big body play”) is an essential part of your child’s development. This refers to any game or play schema that incorporates the actions of running, spinning, twirling, tackling, rolling, and any other movement pattern that may use the large muscles of the body. There is overwhelming research to support the need for unstructured gross motor play in a child’s daily life, and it is valuable that we as caregivers recognize this need and provide children with these play opportunities regularly.

Before diving in to how we can best support this part of child development, I want to clearly differentiate gross motor play from “fighting” and real conflict between peers. Here are some quick physical clues to help distinguish between the two:

A child is engaging in play if…

  1. All play participants are visibly enjoying their interactions with each other. You may see the  children smiling, laughing, and engaging in constructive conversation as their game continues to grow.
  2. Requests to “stop!” are listened to and honored by the children involved.
  3. All children involved are willingly participating in the given play schema or game.

A child is NOT engaging in play if…

  1. One or more play participants seem angry, sad, or scared.
  2. Requests to “stop!” go ignored.
  3. One or more participants appear to want to escape the game.

When observing children play, at first glance these two scenarios may appear very similar. You may see a group of children chasing each other, or two peers wrestling and tumbling together. Before stepping in, stop and assess the situation, looking for the clues mentioned above. Ask yourself, are the children actually fighting? Or are they simply playing?

We know that gross motor play is necessary to nurture a child’s development. Gross motor play has countless benefits, including enhanced language development and cognitive function. Perhaps one of the most beneficial pieces of gross motor play is that it provides children with the opportunity to experience and navigate challenges on their own and in their own “world”. Sometimes two children playfully and happily wrestling together may result in an accidental bump or a misread social signal for how to play the game at hand. These are challenging moments, but they are essential to prepare our children to navigate the world as they continue to grow. Just as adults, children learn best through their own trial and error.

There are two main ways that caregivers can support a child’s need for gross motor play:

1)  Intentionally carve out unstructured playtime in a setting where gross motor play is appropriate.

This may look like play time at a park after school, play dates at an indoor play space, or clearing away the majority of the living room furniture to provide space for children to tumble around. We can find creative and innovative ways to create opportunities for our children to experience gross motor play, even when access to open or outdoor spaces is limited.  If for some reason our schedules or circumstances don’t allow for this, that brings us to the second way we can support our children….

2) Adjust behavioral expectations when gross motor play isn’t an option (but probably necessary).

A lack of gross motor play is associated with increased restlessness inattention in children. Whether this looks like an extra energetic child stuck inside on a stormy day, or students in a classroom visibly ready to run around the playground but who still have 10 more minutes of “Book Time,” these are challenging moments – for both the adult AND the child. When these moments arise, we can recognize what our children’s energetic or fidgety behavior may be communicating in that moment and approach them with compassion and understanding.

As a teacher, for me this means that sometimes “Book Time” ends early and is replaced with a mini dance party. It may look like allowing a child who is rolling around on the floor to continue to do so; because what I know about that child’s needs, combined with knowing how few opportunities the child has had for gross motor play that day, tells me that the child’s rolling is communicating a need for movement. If gross motor movement isn’t an option in that moment, I try to approach that behavior with patience and understanding.

For a child, their most important job each day is to learn through play. This is how friendship amongst children grows and strengthens. This is how life lessons are learned and committed to memory for future encounters. This is truly how our children learn best J.

Recommended resource:  Big Body Play by Frances M Carlson

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