Physical activity play: the nature and function of a neglected aspect of playing

Child Dev. 1998 Jun;69(3):577-98.


In this review, we consider the nature and possible developmental functions of physical activity play, defined as a playful context combined with a dimension of physical vigor. We distinguish 3 kinds of physical activity play, with consecutive age peaks: rhythmic stereotypies peaking in infancy, exercise play peaking during the preschool years, and rough-and-tumble play peaking in middle childhood. Gender differences (greater prevalence in males) characterize the latter 2 forms. Function is considered in terms of beneficial immediate and deferred consequences in physical, cognitive, and social domains. Whereas most theories assume that children's play has deferred benefits, we suggest that forms of physical activity play serve primarily immediate developmental functions. Rhythmic stereotypies in infancy are hypothesized to improve control of specific motor patterns. Exercise play is hypothesized to function primarily for strength and endurance training; less clear evidence exists for possible benefits for fat reduction and thermoregulation. In addition, there may be cognitive benefits of exercise play that we hypothesize to be largely incidental to its playful or physical nature. Rough-and-tumble play has a distinctive social component; we hypothesize that it serves primarily dominance functions; evidence for benefits to fighting skills or to emotional coding are more equivocal. Further research is indicated, given the potentially important implications for children's education, health, and development.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Development*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Exercise* / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Motor Skills
  • Physical Endurance
  • Physical Fitness
  • Play and Playthings*
  • Sex Factors