What are the Physical Benefits of Play?

Encouraging play – whether it’s independent, structured, creative, direction-based or natural group play – contributes to a range of positive developments in children. And it’s so much more than simply burning off energy or killing time.

In the first of this four-part series, we will explore the physical benefits of play and how it should be encouraged from babies right through to teenagers. We sat down with Dr Caroline Moul, a research psychologist who teaches the social-cognition stream of the University of Sydney’s Developmental Psychology course, to discuss why play is so powerful.


Image: Macquarie Centre

Not just about ‘burning off energy’

 It’s easy for parents, carers and even teachers to fall into the line of thinking that play is merely a way for children to burn off excess energy or kill time during the day. Even those who understand its importance in developing social skills – such as engaging in creative play with others at a park, for example – fail to recognise the broad scope of play’s influence during a child’s development.

Dr Moul cites “societal pressures” as one of the reasons why parents, in particular, may restrict their children from general free play because they believe they need to have certain skills taught or trained in a specific way from an early age.

“What’s difficult for some parents to understand is that play itself, particularly in the early years, actually gives children those foundational skills that they will need to become proficient in things later on in life,” she says.

“So it’s about developing a generalised skillset rather than a specified skillset. Basic skills like self-regulation, problem-solving, independence, self-belief – those are the kind of fundamental skills that are developed so nicely through free play and that contribute to success later on in life.”

Image: Play Along the Way, The Glen

Coordination, risk-taking and more

In terms of the physical rewards of play, Dr Moul says the benefits run the gamut from general strength and mobility right through to risk-taking skills.

“From a developmental point of view, play is all about developing the gross motor skills and coordination,” she says. “But risk-taking, for example, comes into the physical side of things as well. Free play gives a child the opportunity to push their own abilities and make them grow at a pace that suits the child.

“Strength, mobility and flexibility are obvious benefits from a developmental perspective. So in order to hit their physical developmental milestones, they need the opportunity to actually engage in regular play.

Dr Moul cites the example of two children who are exactly the same age, height and build, but one has been exposed to stairs since birth.

“If you compare kids who grow up in places without stairs versus those who don’t, it shouldn’t be surprising that the child who grew up in a house with stairs may be able to climb them earlier than the child who grew up in a single-level home. It’s common sense: they’ve simply had the practice.

“But as you give children the opportunity to learn different physical skills – and you can see that in a playground setting all the time – then you will notice kids actively trying to gain a new skill. We can see this all throughout the playground environment, for example learning how to cross the monkey bars or swinging by themselves.”

Image: Westfield Event Cinemas Junior

Staving off obesity

For Dr Moul as well as a raft of childhood experts across the country, the epidemic of childhood obesity in Australia must be addressed for what it is: a dangerous and growing threat to our children’s health.

Consistent play-based physical activities can be a simple solution that helps children to not only become more active – and therefore start on their journey to a healthier lifestyle – but it encourages all the other facets of their young development.

“We have a problem in this country with childhood obesity. We know that childhood obesity is one of the biggest risk factors for adults becoming overweight and obese. So having the opportunity to be physically active is something that’s critically important for children. Diet is a major factor as well, but just being able to run around, to move and to be physically active is one of the best ways of reducing that risk.

How much physical exercise should kids get according to their age?

 Play isn’t just for toddlers and up. Babies need regular activity to progress their physical development as well. The Department of Health’s Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines outline recommendations for a child’s early years (birth to 5 years) as well as children and young people (ages 5 to 17):

There’s no denying the power of play in the ongoing development of children, with the physical benefits vast. Not only can regular play encourage healthy habits into adulthood, but it can influence the fundamental skills that may ultimately lead to greater success in later life.

PlayOn! is a huge supporter of play. We create bespoke children’s playgrounds that you can find in shopping centres and public waiting areas all around Australia, with the goal of encouraging children to learn and develop – both mentally and physically – through play. You can find out more about what we’re doing for childhood play here