Playful Learning: The Importance of Space to Play

Mind Moves® vir kritiese denke en kreatiewe probleemoplossing
September 26, 2023
Die Belangrikheid van Speelareas
October 16, 2023

By Melodie de Jager


Children are born with an innate urge to move, which encourages and prompts the discovery of their bodies and what they can do with them. Young children’s drawings are wonderful ways to illustrate which parts of their bodies they are aware of and which parts they are not yet aware of.

In A Typical Drawing by a Well-Developed Three-Year-Old

The head and the body are still perceived as a single unit and, therefore, drawn as one. A three-year-old child is still in the process of discovering their large muscles (gross motor skills) and is less focused on the smaller muscles in their hands, feet, and eyes. As a result, the hands, feet, and pupils are often absent in their drawings.

A Typical Drawing by a Well-Developed Four-Year-Old Girl

Notice the separation of the head and the body, as well as the finer facial features. However, hands with fingers, feet, and pupils are still often absent.

A Typical Drawing By A Six-Year-Old Boy

Notice the defined neck, shoulders, elbows, fingers, feet, and grounding line. This boy’s body awareness has developed significantly, but it’s worth noting that his awareness of his hands appears to be slightly ahead of his awareness of his feet. He may benefit from more activities involving running, jumping, climbing, and experiencing different angles and textures with his feet.


Early childhood is an exciting and energetic time when every moment overflows with opportunities to discover oneself and the immediate environment through the entire body, not solely relying on the eyes, hands, or the senses of smell, taste, or hearing. It involves engaging every sense and muscle in the body. This is what we mean when we say early childhood is one long multi-sensory and multi-muscle experience.

Movement signifies development.

The ability to pause,

demonstrates impulse control.

A child develops an inner awareness of their body, its movement, and capabilities through proprioception, touch, and gross motor (big muscle) activities. This is known as body awareness, a complex process involving the senses, brain, and muscles to create a mental map of the body. Initially, body parts may seem disorganized, but as a child develops, these parts come together to form a more comprehensive map of the body in the brain.

The brain can only utilize what it is aware of.

The senses transmit messages to the brain to identify a body part before the brain sends signals to the muscles for a response. Once the brain ‘senses’ and recognizes a body part, it can utilize it. However, if the brain is not aware of a particular body part, it does not spontaneously engage the ‘missing’ body part.

Observe children’s drawings and notice how frequently they omit ears. It’s no wonder they do not use their ears to listen effectively, the first time!

The more a child runs, climbs, swings, hangs, slides, and engages in physical activities, the more they enhance their awareness of their bodies. This leads to a more comprehensive map of the body in the brain and greater skilfulness in their movements.


Once a child has developed a solid body map, the next step is to answer the question: “Where am I?” A child’s ability to position themselves in relation to other objects is referred to as spatial orientation. Having a sense of spatial orientation allows a child to use their own body as a reference point, establishing their current location. This, in turn, fosters a sense of self and confidence in navigating through space.

When a child knows where they are, it becomes easier for them to identify the locations of other people and objects. Spatial orientation is the key to planning and organizing their environment and helps prevent them from misplacing their belongings.

It’s essential for recognizing shapes and numbers, as well as for sequencing, following instructions, reasoning logically, and engaging in activities like painting, drawing, cutting, and gluing. Spatial orientation is also associated with closure, enabling a child to accurately copy, write, spell, read, and, particularly, comprehend math and reading with comprehension later on.


Much like using a GPS, once you know your current position, you can plan your movements. Children need to experience physical movement and learn the names of directions in which they move, before they can effectively describe their position in space. They need to be able to say, “I can move up and down, side to side (left and right), forward and backward, in between objects, over obstacles, under structures, and in and out of spaces.” Thereafter they will be more able to understand the sequence of the days in a week, months in a year, letters in a word and the way a number line works.

Only when children have a sense of their own location can they begin to understand and describe where other people, objects, and eventually numbers and letters are in relation to themselves. “Are they in front of me, behind me, in the middle, above, below, to the left, to the right, underneath, on top, or next to me?”

Body awareness, spatial orientation, position in space, and a sense of direction are all abstract concepts that can be challenging to teach unless children first experience them in a concrete and multisensory way, using gross motor skills.


Gross motor skills includes activities such as walking, hopping, skipping, kicking, throwing, jumping, climbing, hanging, catching, and more. These skills necessitate a well-proportioned body with sufficient strength, coordination, balance, and control to function independently without additional support. At a deeper level, gross motor skills rely on the development of the vestibular system to integrate sensory input (sensory integration) and control muscle tone and directionality, guided by the eyes and ears to help children:

  • respond to sensory input.
  • find a sense of purpose in their movements.
  • maintain proper posture.
  • develop a sense of independence.

Underdeveloped gross motor skills can manifest as low muscle tone, poor balance, a reluctance to engage in outdoor play, clumsiness, jerky movements, tics, and a need for support when sitting or standing for extended periods.


To promote the development of gross motor skills in children, encourage children to play outside. Challenge them to explore their bodies by experimenting with various ways of moving through space. Go to the park, go for a walk in nature, swim, cycle, skip, go horse riding or invest in a developmental playground.

Invest in or visit developmental playgrounds. These playgrounds are designed to facilitate continuous motor activity. They often feature equipment made of materials like steel or wood. Wood offers a natural feel, while steel provides a better grip and does not splinter. Developmentally sound playgrounds typically include:

    • Climbing Structures: Various climbing elements such as jungle gyms, walls, nets, and ropes.
    • Swings: Different types of swings that provide sensory input and develop their core.
    • Slides: Both straight and curved slides at various heights for descending at different speed.
    • Static Ladders: Ladders for climbing.
    • Obstacle Courses: Ropes and nets for climbing and navigating.
    • Crawl Spaces: Tunnels, tires, or drums for crawling through.
    • Balance Challenges: Suspended beams, rope bridges, or balance beams.
    • Monkey Bars: Bars for hanging and swinging.
    • Fireman’s Pole: A pole for climbing and sliding.

These developmental playgrounds create sensory-rich environments that support the development of gross motor skills and offer a wide range of physical challenges for children.


Movement forms the foundation for physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development, progressing naturally from one level to the next when children are provided with opportunities to move.

  • Physical Development: Playgrounds enhance body awareness, spatial orientation, coordination, control, eye-hand and eye-foot coordination, overall muscle development, muscle tone, balance on static and moving equipment, shoulder girdle stability, core stability, laterality, crossing the midline, a sense of direction, and position in space. They also promote motor planning, proper posture, exposure to sunlight for Vitamin D production, and improved oxygen circulation to the brain, leading to better concentration, memory, and learning. Research has shown that spending more time playing outside reduces the risk of obesity among young children.
  • Emotional Development: Playgrounds contribute to the development of a child’s sense of self, daring, courage, confidence, enjoyment, fun, love for life, energy release, stress reduction, self-expression, concentration, and impulse control.
  • Social Development: Playgrounds serve as ideal settings for learning important life skills such as cooperation, sharing, turn-taking, conflict resolution, leadership skills, interaction with peers, tolerance, prioritization, and role-playing.
  • Intellectual Development: Playgrounds immerse children in an array of colours, sizes, and shapes, helping them experience these abstract concepts. They stimulate imagination, problem-solving abilities, logical thinking for comparing, classifying, and sequencing actions, as well as encourage experimentation and risk-taking. Playgrounds also foster communication skills, attention regulation, persistence, creative thinking, and math skills (e.g. understanding concepts like first, last, up, down, in, and out), visual perception, depth and height awareness, and an understanding of left and right.

In summary, while navigating developmentally sound playgrounds, children discover that they can overcome challenges in a joyful and engaging manner.


  1. Movement is an essential aspect of play and learning, and it necessitates adequate space.
  2. The growth and development of the body and brain are intertwined.
  3. The foundation for a good pencil grip is often laid while hanging from monkey bars or climbing a net.
  4. Ample experiences in running, climbing, hanging, and balancing are essential for children to learn to read and write effectively.
  5. The confined living conditions of many active young children can restrict their movement and impede their development.
  6. Sensory integration and the development of gross motor skills underpin ALL academic skills.
  7. The potential for heart disease begins in early childhood when children do not engage in sufficient physical activity.
  8. Generally, some of the most effective learning occurs outside the traditional classroom.
  9. Every child requires freedom and space to safely explore and be adventurous.
  10. Scientific and mathematical concepts are often initially grasped through physical experiences on the playground before being understood cognitively from a book.

A playground provides an ideal way to nurture the complete development of a child in a joyful and playful manner. Spending ample time outdoors makes it much easier for children to focus and behave inside the classroom.


  • Position playing equipment at a safe distance from each other to prevent children from falling onto others if they jump or fall.
  • Ensure that the equipment is securely anchored to the ground and that no horizontal pipes or bars attached to the lower parts protrude above the ground.
  • Secure the equipment in concrete, but cover the ground beneath it with soft sand or plant grass.
  • If the equipment is made of wood, conduct a daily inspection to check for wood splinters and breaks.
  • If the equipment is made of metal, inspect it daily for loose screws and rust.
  • Regularly inspect ropes, chains, swings, and netting to ensure they are securely attached.
  • Keep an eye on tires, as they can sometimes harbour snakes, scorpions, or spiders. Conduct regular inspections.
  • Avoid situating adventure equipment near fences that children could climb over.
  • Encourage children to play on the apparatus with bare feet for better grip and sensory feedback.
  • Be cautious after rain, as wet surfaces can be slippery.

Provide supervision at all times but avoid hovering. Instead, foster a sense of confidence in the children’s ability to move and explore safely.

Mind Moves ELECTIVE booster workshops:

Neuro Dynamix Remedial Obstacle Courses Online training:


Lost your password?