Academics call on schools to let children play

Teacher with children

Active play can improve social, emotional and cognitive development in children, and help to close the education attainment gap, say academics at Strathclyde.

In addition to the health benefits, any form of active play which improves children’s heart rates, can also have educational benefits. It has been observed that active play is stimulating better cognitive development and mental health, meaning children’s brains are performing better in the classroom.

A team of researchers from the University has worked with Inspiring Scotland and sports and physical activity social enterprise Agile to develop an active play programme which trains teachers and works with children in both structured and unstructured play. The team has also developed a digital Knowledge Exchange resource ‘Play-Learn-Connect’ in order to help school staff and families facilitate play in children.

A showcase of the collaborative project ‘Addressing the Attainment Gap through Active Play’ was showcased at the University as part of Engage Week. Professor John Reilly, of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences and Health, said: 

Physical activity is incredibly important to a child’s health and wellbeing. Active play is available to all, can be done every day of the year and needs little resource. Increased active play should result in improved educational performance, which in turn could ultimately help to close the current attainment gap.”

The active play programme, titled ‘Go2Play’ features a series of play sessions, which include throwing and catching, skipping, balancing, hopping and jumping. As well as a cardio-vascular work-out, the activities are also designed to stimulate and improve the children’s motor skills and co-ordination.

The programme is currently being rolled out by Glasgow City Council as part of their Improvement Challenge. Changes noted by teachers include increased communication, physical fitness, creativity, teamwork, risk-taking, problem-solving, emotional resilience and co-operation. The Strathclyde team will evaluate the effect of the 10 week intervention on cognitive performance and maths attainment in children in the next school year.

The event follows other recent Strathclyde research, which discovered physical activity levels in children may start tailing off as early as the age of seven.

Celia Tennant, chief executive of Inspiring Scotland, said: “We want every child in Scotland to have the same opportunity to lead a healthy and happy life and increasing childhood physical activity, as well as emotional and cognitive development, through Active Play is vital to achieving this. Our collaboration with the research team at the University of Strathclyde has been instrumental in evaluating, improving and developing the Active Play programme to ensure the best possible outcome for Scotland’s children.”

Aidan Gallacher, director of Agile, said: "At Agile we believe that those on the ground supporting children to be more active are key in addressing the challenges we face around physical inactivity. Our ambition is to provide them with the best support possible and access to the tools they need to deliver excellent sessions. The unique and progressive collaboration we have built with Inspiring Scotland and the University of Strathclyde has enabled us to develop a range of quality materials, informed by best practise and research, and a digital platform through which we can disseminate them to play charities and schools."

Maureen McKenna, Director of Education at Glasgow City Council (GCC), will provide the keynote presentation on the Active Play programme at the event. Maureen said: “We have now rolled out the Active Play programme to ten more primary schools and I’m already getting very positive feedback! 

“In Glasgow we are passionate about the benefits of active play and outdoor learning and how it is instrumental in helping us in our aim to raise attainment and children’s aspirations.

“One Headteacher has welcomed the changes that Go2Play has had on their school – telling me how that now the Play Champions have been trained, Active Play is becoming embedded into daily life in the school. 

“An area of the school yard has been sectioned off for children to participate in play.  The Play Champs decide on the equipment to be used each day and then lead imaginative play sessions for others.  Due to the high number taking part the Play Champs have drawn up a timetable to give all upper classes an opportunity to join in. 

“The headteacher has watched their Play Champs grow in confidence, lead others, make decisions and take responsibility.  The others are participating as part of a team, thinking creatively and building resilience.  

“Active Play is helping the school deliver their Health and Well Being in a meaningful and purposeful way that is first, and foremost, fun – that says it all for me!”

‘Engage with Strathclyde’, now in its sixth year, hosting more than 50 events from 2-5 May 2017 and showcasing research and innovation from across the University’s four faculties. For more information and to register, visit