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The Benefits of Free Play Backed by Science

A study of primary school children during school break periods has found that not only is the break period a good opportunity to enhance children’s physical activity, but lunchtime activities need not be costly. Providing simple and cheap items such as buckets and tyre tubes during school break periods was found to significantly increase children’s enjoyment of, and participation in, physical activity – even more than using traditional fixed playground equipment.

The study, led by Dr Brendon Hyndman from RMIT University’s School of Medical Sciences, examined the differences in play between primary school children in two schools sharing similar features (student numbers, geography, socio-economic status, gender balance). One school was newly constructed and had no fixed playground equipment, the other school contained fixed playground equipment such as slides, wooden bridges, climbing frames, and monkey bars.

After introducing moveable play items – including milk crates, swimming noodles, buckets, exercise mats and hay bales –  to the newly constructed school, researchers tracked the behaviour of the120 students at three points in time, concluding at an 8 month follow-up . Using direct observation and questionnaires, the researchers compared results with the other school which was not introduced to moveable/recycled materials, but where students retained access to playground equipment, fields and sporting equipment, and the sandpit.  

The research showed that introducing simple, everyday objects during recess and lunchtime can cut sedentary behaviour by half, improve creativity, and boost social and problem solving skills. Students who played with everyday household objects took 13 more steps per minute and played more intensively and vigorously compared to those using the traditional playground. The research, published in the international journal, BMC Public Health, suggests that traditional school playgrounds may be stifling imaginative and energetic play. “Conventional playgrounds are designed by adults – they don't actually take into consideration how the children want to play,” Dr Hyndman said.

While school break periods have traditionally been used to encourage physical activity and active play,  Dr Hyndman’s paper refers to Australian data revealing that ‘Whilst a well-designed school environment can enhance children’s physical and mental health… many schools have eliminated play spaces and equipment, have crowded play spaces and implement restrictive play policies (e.g. reduced playground access, over-policing of safety rules), resulting in fewer opportunities for children to experience active play.’

Unstructured play, also known as free play, is defined as the intirinsic activity of children when they participate in spontaneous games without a set regime or purpose. Introducing natural environmental features, play pods, and movable/recycled materials are examples of unstructured interventions that have been used during school breaks.

The study concludes that the introduction of movable/recycled materials can have a significant, positive long-term intervention effect on children’s physical activity. And it is the simple, low-cost interventions that can provide diversity to children’s play, developing playfulness, physical, cognitive and social outcomes and appeal to a broad range of children.

 "These results could be applied to anywhere that children play and shift the debate on the best way to keep our children healthy," Hyndman added.

Image from freedigitalphotos.net