“He has more than 600 muscles in his body and NOT ONE is for sitting still.” As a child, I can’t count the number of times my mom told me this as my brother ran, jumped, tumbled, and crashed through the house. While I didn’t understand this as a child, through an adult lens, I now know that this rough-and-tumble, big body play is a natural part of child development.
Gross motor development can occur through structured, adult-led activities; however, big body play typically refers to “exuberant and spontaneous gross motor movements that come naturally and instinctively to children” (Carlson, 2018). This type of play is child-led and typically less structured.
Benefits of Big Body Play
The full-body movements involved in this type of play - running, jumping, throwing, spinning, tumbling, climbing - are not simply a release of energy, but a way for young children to learn about how their bodies work. Through these movements, children gain awareness of their bodies in relation to others, develop balance and coordination, and strengthen their muscles.
In addition to physical development, this type of play has other social-emotional and cognitive benefits. Children develop skills like self-restraint and reciprocity because they quickly learn that if they don’t take turns or play with the appropriate level of intensity, they will lose a partner in play, which is not their ultimate goal (Partnership for Early Learners, 2019). They learn to interpret both verbal and nonverbal communication, particularly as they decode the facial expressions and gestures of their playmates. They continue to develop empathy by understanding “how their movements can affect others” (Carlson, 2018). And the setup of this type of play often involves opportunities for children to practice cooperation, decision making, and complex problem-solving as they set rules and design games.
Yet, even though we understand the benefits, as adults, big body play can make us feel nervous. It can feel like we have lost control of a situation or that the environment has become too “chaotic”. We wonder, will it go too far? Will they get hurt? And how do we balance our children’s need to move and explore their bodies with the limitations of our physical spaces?
Tips for Supporting Big Body Play
1. Recognize the Difference Between Play and Fighting
While big body play can include wrestling, tumbling, or physical motions that may appear similar to fighting, it is distinctly different. During play, all children are willing participants, and their demeanor is relaxed, often through smiles or laughter. Children’s intentions during this time are not to “harm or control their playmates” (Carlson, 2018). During a fight, however, children’s expressions are stressed or rigid, and they are not voluntarily participating in a game (Partnerships for Early Learning, 2019). Learning to recognize these differences can ensure we respond appropriately.
2. Scaffold the Set-Up of This Play
Just like all other areas of development, teachers can support this play through modeling and scaffolding. We can model what certain types of gestures might look like. For example, we might show what smiles or grimaces look like and help children learn to understand what these nonverbal cues mean in the context of rough and tumble play.
We can also play a role in helping children to develop the shared language they need to support this type of play. For example, we might facilitate a conversation about the word “stop” and how to react when a playmate uses that word. We can also support children as they develop the rules for their game. We can ask prompting questions like, “What should we think about to make sure everyone stays safe?” or "What should we do if..." Then, if we do need to step into this play, we can refer back to the shared language, rules, and understanding we developed in collaboration with children.
3. Supervise Don’t Squash
Starting from infancy, children are instinctively wired to explore the world around them through their bodies. And big body play is a part of that exploration. As Mike Huber, author of Embracing Rough and Tumble Play, writes, “we can choose to celebrate this expression or choose to restrict it, but either way, children will continue to move” (Huber, 2016). The role of the adult in this type of play is to supervise it to ensure the play remains both safe and fun for all participants.
4. Create Physical Spaces for Big Body Play
Outdoor spaces are particularly conducive to big body play. Open spaces allow children to run, crawl, wrestle, spin, kick, and move in any way they choose. Spaces with inclines support rolling down or climbing up. Paved spaces can allow for the set-up of more structured activities such as hopscotch, obstacle courses using materials like hula hoops, cones, jump ropes, balls, etc. But this type of play is not only important when the weather cooperates or we have a large open space at our disposal. In indoor environments, ensure there is a dedicated open space where children know they can move. Keep this space clear of potential tripping hazards, including rug corners, and free of corners or sharp objects that children might fall into.
Carlson, F. (2018). Big Body Play: Why Boisterous, Vigorous, and Very Physical Play Is Essential to Children’s Development. National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved from: https://naeyc.info/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Big-Body-Play.pdf
About the Author
Anna Marrs is a former early literacy curriculum developer and a former certified 1st grade teacher in North Carolina. She holds a Master's in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and now works on the Education team at Kaymbu.