Where messy play involves the interaction with elements in the outer world and the sensations they produce such as sound and feel, movement play is more about the body itself and how your child moves. If messy play is about the signals coming into the body, movement play is the body interacting in the world.
As a baby grows and develops they take in information through different repeated movements which build an awareness of their bodies, coordination, balance, posture control, and fine motor skills like hand-eye coordination. Movement play is about enjoying our physical existence in the world. It has benefits in terms of health and fitness, and is an important factor in brain development, but also has implications for emotional health. Running around and using up some of that emotional energy is a great way to deal with anger and frustration.
All children will benefit from movement play but it can be particularly helpful for ones who have experienced some kind of interruption to their development. Revisiting earlier developmental stages is an important part of healing trauma.
Create the Space
Outside spaces are probably the easiest in which to engage in movement play, but not everyone has a garden or a yard. Parks are also great places to use, but using indoor space is also possible, and this will come into its own if the weather is bad or you can’t get out of the house. Try and think about movement-based activities you can do in each setting. If you want to use an indoor space, set up a particular zone for this, or at least somewhere where potential obstacles and hazards can be cleared away easily. State clearly to your child where the zone is or when it is in operation. Something like,
“So this is our movement space, we have 30 minutes to play together, I’ll let you know when you have 5 minutes left and 1 minute to finish.”
Add the Activities
- Create an assault course with things your child has to crawl through like a large cardboard box and things to wriggle over like an upturned washing bowl.
- Join in with them such as by playing wheelbarrow where your child walks on their hands with you holding their feet. Start with short periods and build up gradually.
- Set up an obstacle course or a maze. You can attach rules to objects such as when you pass the teddy bear, you have to jump. Or use a sound to trigger an action. “When I say BANANA, you have to do a forward roll.”
- Balancing activities, such as on a yoga ball or walking a line on the floor.
- Rolling over on tummy, forward rolls, cartwheels if they can.
- Jumping on a trampoline if you have one, or games like hopscotch.
- Swinging, either on a swing or a rope.
- Scooters are great if you have space. Ideal for use in a park.
The main thing is to get them moving in different ways and to keep a sense of fun. Be aware of your child’s approach and adjust the level of challenge accordingly. For example, a fearful child may need help and support and gradual increases of challenge, and a risk-taker child may need you to thoughtfully talk about risks and how to avoid them. You could also help your child with impulse control and listening skills by giving instructions as part of a game such as, “You can’t jump until I say bananas.” You could make signs for stop and go or use the colours red and green. Be careful if you have more than one child and be watchful of those who are competitive that they don’t overpower more timid children. Your role here is important.
Rules and Limits
Rather than giving lots of rules, give them a boundary to play within and a statement so you can put limits in place if needed. For example:
“You are playing and moving around today. You can play on the things I have set up. We’re not going to have lots of rules but we won’t hurt each other, we won’t hurt ourselves and we won’t break things on purpose, and if there’s anything else you can’t do I’ll let you know.”
This is wonderful because it allows children to create their own limits and they may surprise you that they are better at stopping themselves than we think. But it also gives you the chance to intervene if necessary. Be careful of your own limits. Be aware of your own feelings about physical play and try not to transfer your worries onto your child. For example, maybe you avoid risks or are over-cautious. It’s a balancing act that children can play and challenge themselves but also that the risks to their physical health are minimal. If you are a two-parent family, you may find one of you is less risk-averse so would be better suited to supervise movement play.
The main thing is to have fun. If play becomes boring or stressful then a child will act out or disengage. Remember when children play naturally they are both enjoying the experience but are also learning.