BLOG: How do we use active play to address the ‘word gap’?

With the announcement by DfE of two multi-million-pound schemes to help boost early language and literacy development for disadvantaged children, Chris Wright Head of Wellbeing at the Youth Sport Trust, discusses why play should be part of the language development discussion.
We know that the early years are critical for instilling a love of moving and provide many of life’s building blocks for their physical, social and emotional development. But active play and physical activity also hold a higher purpose. The skills learnt through play, are vital in children’s cognition, brain function and language development.

As Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey said at our Conference earlier this year; “physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. For the brain to learn, these connections must be made...The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn.”

Should it be a surprise to us that the more physically literate a child is, the better they will be able to express themselves verbally? 

I was amazed to learn a new fact this week but a disheartening one. Did you know that a child from a disadvantaged background will have heard 30 million LESS words than their more affluent peers? The Government has reacted by announcing projects, totalling £13.5 million, that aim to build the confidence of parents to support their children in language and reading in a bid to reduce the gap in communication skills between disadvantaged children and their peers when they start school.

Many of the strategies and interventions being put into place to narrow the literacy and language gap need to do more to acknowledge the role of active play. I would like to see a society where a love of parents playing with their children and benefiting from the interactions and social development that comes from positive parenting is instilled. What about the evidence that shows active play helps children develop language skills when explaining the game, negotiating rules or asking to share? We are in danger of play and physical activity being an after-thought in the development of our future generations.

As a children’s charity, we are committed to teaching movement to nurture the next generation and prepare them for the world whether that is physically, emotionally or socially. One way we are doing this is through our Healthy Movers suite of resources and training. We want to help practitioners and parents inspire children to move more and sit less and use the benefits of active play for fun, enjoyment and learning.

I believe that children are losing the love of play as they go through the primary years. As a parent of three children, I recognise the constraints and pressures that are placed on children. We restrict their opportunity to take risks, to play outdoors or too far from the home and we insist that they conform to the ’rules of the family unit’. They are forgetting how to express themselves, the relationships between them, their friends and siblings is deteriorating and their attention spans and interactions are becoming shorter.

Children need to move when they are young, this is a key way they express themselves so don’t confine them to car seats, high chairs and push chairs or sit them in front of the TV for hours on end because it is convenient and creates less hassle. Grow children and give them a love of play. This will help them reap rewards later in life and be equipped to achieve their best.

If we do we will reap the benefits of a socially mobile and healthy generation of children that don’t grow up to be overweight, emotionally unwell, or worse; die five years younger than the generation that preceded them. If we spark their brain development through physical activity in the early years, play can be vital in addressing the 30million word gap and contributing to these societal problems.

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