Play-Based Movement with a Purpose! Beyond Exercise: Joyful Learning for Whole-Person Development

A blonde-haired toddler lifts a silver metal watering can to water green plants in a wooden raised garden box

Do humans need exercise to be healthy? Not exactly! 

Children were designed by nature to move and wired to learn through playful movement. Far more than any exercise regime, children simply need invitations and opportunities to playfully move, with abundant time and frequency.

For children, movement is play, and play is movement! Movement motivated by joy rarely feels like work! All people, even children, can enjoy exercise, but even adults know that not all exercise feels like play. The intrinsically motivated, playful movements that children spontaneously engage with and call play builds brain-based foundational skills necessary for all subsequent learning. When given the freedom, opportunity, and encouragement to play, children’s natural “movement diet” is efficient, effective, and highly potent in optimally developing bodies, brains, and emotional capacity.

Movement, which encompasses things we commonly consider “exercise,” is far more imaginative and expansive, and a critical component of whole-person development and well-being. A group of 3-year-olds running down a hill aided by the pull of gravity aren’t thinking about exercise, but are certainly moving their bodies in ways that promote wellness. A parent carrying a breastfeeding baby (the equivalent weight of a kettlebell, by the way) also engages in intentional movements that serve multiple purposes. A child lifting a full laundry basket or helping bring in groceries, a toddler bending and squatting to sweep peas off of the floor, carrying a stack of bedtime books up the stairs, or simply practicing crawling up or down stairs, are all movements that build core strength and serves a purpose, and are often child-driven when they feel fun!

A blonde-haired toddler lifts a silver metal watering can to water green plants in a wooden raised garden box
Lifting a watering can to water growing plants is movement with a purpose for a young child that simultaneously supports whole-person learning and development

Playful Movement Supports Relationship-Based Learning

A bike ride or a hike with a child is more than simply “healthy exercise”! A shared experience of connection-based, movement-centered outdoor play supports a child’s growth and well-being through relationship and connection-based learning opportunities. Notice what they’re interested in, and observe the way they move! Accept the invitation to watch them explore the world through their eyes, and witness all they learn! During a hike, children may detour off-trail to scramble up boulders, jump off rocks, or pick up objects along the way. They are engaging their senses and body to navigate a path through uneven terrain and a wide variety of possible movements that strengthen balance, core, agility, and more. 

During a bike ride, a child may frequently stop their bike to pick up small stones, sticks, or pinecones to collect in a basket and eventually throw off of a bridge or into a pond. When we shift our perspective away from focusing only on the “exercise” parts, we may miss noticing that a child throwing collected stones and sticks into the water is also a scientist experimenting with cause and effect and learning via embodied experience about what floats and what sinks, not to mention developing the hand/eye coordination and gross-motor skills involved in throwing. 

Young children jump in the air in play-based movement in forest grove
Children with the freedom to play outdoors naturally move their bodies in ways that benefit their whole-person well-being

Movement as Vitamins and Nutrients

Movement is the natural inclination for experiential, embodied learning to happen in developing humans. Children are designed by nature to move, play, climb, skip, hop, twirl, ascend, descend, push, lift, carry, run, crawl, creep, slither, and beyond! Children do this naturally, spontaneously, and usually need guidance about how to move safely and appropriately!

Our role as adults is ultimately to encourage, not prohibit, as much movement and bodily exploration as possible and practical. This supports strong and healthy bodies, balanced brains, and a healthy self-concept so they are well-equipped to safely navigate risk

All Humans are Born to Learn: We are Co-Learners Alongside Children!

Ideally, this means that adults engage, play, and participate alongside children. Not only does adult-child movement-based play strengthen relationships and lead to children’s learning, but adults also benefit too! Moving alongside children in motion invites adults into a shared place of physical, mental, and emotional regulation that helps prepare all brains for learning, and strengthens relationships, regardless of age. By observing and moving with children, who instinctively know how to engage their entire bodies in exploratory movement, adults also embody new ways to creatively and intentionally engage their own bodies. How fun for everyone!

In the context of fun and inviting engagement, children naturally explore movement in their bodies via dance, music, and play. Movement-specific learning objectives are to incorporate gross and fine motor skills, hand/eye/body coordination, and cross-body and midline movements, and all of these happen organically when children are provided abundant opportunities to explore the world around them via their bodies through playful experience.

How Movement Supports Whole-Child Development and Optimal Learning Experiences

  • Gross motor skills: Children explore hopping on one & two feet, balancing, leaping, and jumping through movement-based play
  • Strength, flexibility, and balance: Big-body play builds core strength and flexibility
  • Integrated well-being and physical health: Continuous whole-body movements support systems (cardiovascular, circulatory, digestive, and nervous systems, etc)
  • Brain-Body Connection: Bodies that stretch, reach, jump, circle, increase in flexibility, which helps set the stage for a flexible and receptive brain and expansive mental state
  • Sensorimotor Coordination: Practice coordinating hands and eyes in space (like throwing & catching objects) supports the development of foundational skills needed for academic success (like holding a pencil or a scalpel) 
  • Social-Emotional: Children express a range of feelings and emotions via movement, as well as other qualitative concepts encompassing ways and types of movement (fast/slow). Children can embody expressing anger, fear, sadness, and joy through movements.
  • Executive Function: Children practice moving and not-moving, motivated by their internal locus of control, which engages the higher order thinking center of their brains and supports the development of things like impulse control (think freeze tag!)
  • Cognitive Learning: Children play with making their bodies BIG or making them tiny, moving fast or moving slow, light feather feet or dinosaur stomping feet, etc, which supports cognitive and intellectual development. All academic concepts must first be experienced through the body (embodied learning).
  • Movement-based play supports nervous system regulation and brain integration: A joyful, play-based state is the optimal state of physical, emotional, and neurological preparation for learning through cross-body movements (side/side midline, front/back midline, and top/bottom midlines).
  • Play, fun, and connection: Play is the way nature designed children to learn. Play is a joyful invitation to explore the world and connect with the world and everything in it. Fun movement prepares brains of all ages for learning. Joyful child-led play is essential to optimal physical, emotional, mental, spiritual well being. Let children guide us towards wellness as whole people!

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