What motivates children for active recess play?

Child playing with iPad

This month’s theme is about something easily pushed aside by the autumn weather: active outdoor play. Children need to move to keep the heart healthy and to develop motor skill but are all to easily lured into sedentary digital play. The schoolyard can be a place that helps children achieve their daily 60 minutes of physical activity. How important is the variety in play objects to make a schoolyard attractive for active play?

Children as playground experts

Elsje Caro and her colleague Teatske Altenburg researcher at the VUmc went to three schools in Amsterdam to figure out what makes 9-12 year old children engage in physical activity during recess. Instead of immediately changing the playground and testing whether the children became more active, she decided to ask the children what they thought was important for active play.

Some of the things the children mentioned replicated findings from scientific studies. For instance that space is important for active play. You can read all the children’s suggestions here. In this blog I’ll focus on two things: the children asked for more variety in play equipment so they wouldn’t get bored but also noted that a game of soccer always remained fun.

A game of soccer remains fun

The rules of play make a game interesting

Children asked for more variety in play objects. Otherwise they would get bored over time or grow too tall to use a certain object. Does the demand for variety mean that schools should invest in more interesting play objects? Not necessarily. The children also noted that a game of soccer always remained fun. A game of soccer uses a very boring object: a sphere that can bounce. Often the rules make a game interesting, rather than the objects involved. The American philosopher Ian Bogost also discusses this in the wonderful book Play Anything.

Children can make up rules for new games. Teatske and her colleagues also observed that children engaged in self-invented games. Moreover, the children asked for objects without an obvious play function – trees for instance. This indicates that the rules of play don’t have to be explicit in the play object.

picture taken from https://www.duvallforassembly.com/learn-about-and-benefits-of-the-indoor-wall-climbing/

To explore new rules of play, children need two things: variety and boredom.

Variety stimulates exploration. Climbers for instance explore more different strategies when the handles on a route support different ways of grasping them. So yes, it probably helps to add different shapes and colors to a gray schoolyard.

Yet, there is also virtue in boredom. The human mind especially explores novel possibilities when it is dissatisfied with its current state. Moments of boredom can spark the discovery of new play opportunities. Also read about the value of boredom in this previous blog.

So although a bit of variety is important, there is no need to buy new equipment as soon as children get bored. The children themselves came up with a better idea: look online for new schoolyard games.

Check the website of the Youth and Health group of the VUMC for more information about their research!

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