We all know that play is the work of children. When children make use of all their muscles and get an aerobic workout during play, they reduce mental stress, increase attention skills and ground their emotions. In short, they improve their ability to function.
How long will those effects last? It’s really a factor of the intensity and duration of the work they do. The 30-minute lunchtime recess is sufficient for most children when they are actively playing. However, some children are going to need more exercise and play-breaks throughout the day. Think of the child with ADHD. That boy or girl can burn off some of the hyperactive energy and ground their impulses with play. But they may need physical activity every couple of hours.
With grade school children, I sometimes play two-person bounce-and-catch ball in the school hallway for 10 minutes, mid-morning or mid-afternoon. It helps to alert children who are sluggish, and it calms the hyperactive child—especially when he chases after errant balls.
There are easy ways to get a movement break in the classroom with exercise or structured movement games. An easy game is Teacher Says. The teacher says, “Climb a rope.” Children respond by tugging at an invisible rope. Teacher says, “Row a boat,” or “swim,” or “hop on one foot.” Children love this, and typically they will request favorite movements. When done for 5-10 minutes, it can be a restoring break.
Some children are over-excited with movement and have a difficult time calming afterwards. This can be off-putting, discouraging adults from conducting the exercise-play sessions. But there are tricks to make it easier. Try passing a heavy ball around the room a few times. The ball’s weight brings excited children back into their bodies as they feel their knees flex and the arches of their feet stretch and touch the floor. How much weight? Third graders usually need about 2.25 kg. A small child 2-3 years old can usually handle 1 kg. Try a 5-kg ball for children in 7th Grade. Other ways to get them to calm and quiet include doing a few stretches or yoga poses or some isometrics. Stretching (including yoga movements) pulls the strength out of muscles and this quiets the body.
To quiet talkative children after play, I like to have them perform simple attention exercises such as tapping fingers of both hands together in a pattern: Tap both thumbs together, tap index fingers together, tap middle fingers together, and so on, and then reverse the pattern. The exercise requires sufficient attention that the child must stop talking to perform it.
By the way, the benefit of play extends to helping to regulate the mind, emotions and social interaction. This is good news for the child with sensory or mental self-regulation problems. Heavy work helps to burn off the energy of hyperactivity in ADHD, reduce the stress of poor sensory regulation, improve focus and engagement in the child autism, ground the child with trauma, lift depression, and ground mania. And best of all, play works well for all age groups. It’s an effective remedy for self-regulation problems.