Sports and Fun

Playing to Win: How Sports and Games Promote Healthy Childhood Development and Foster Achievement

1)     What role do sports, games and entertaining activities play early on?

2)     What role do sports and games play in school and at home?

3)     How do they help academically?

4)     How do academics help performance in sports/games?

5)     What internal and external motivators drive competitors to excel?

6)     How do these childhood interests translate in the work place?


“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” There is a good chance that you have uttered this proverb to rationalize your need to cut loose and unwind, but there’s a lot of truth in the statement. From babies’ first games of peek-a-boo to the wild, imaginative play of toddlers, the playground tumbles of school-aged kids, and the elite feats of strength and skill demonstrated by high school athletes, play is an ever-present and important part of childhood. Play is so important, in fact, that Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child treaty states that children have a right to play and participate in recreational activities.

Concerns about play getting in the way of kids’ academic learning may start early, especially due to high-stakes standardized testing and the desire to help kids “get ahead.” You might worry that participation in organized sports or gaming activities will interrupt your child’s education supplies  for instance, and you’re not alone. Schools are trimming recess and recreation from the school day at an unprecedented rate, in part to stretch the amount of time they can devote to academics. However, the benefits kids reap from playing sports and games make these activities just as essential to their development and futures as classroom learning. These types of activities play key roles in early childhood development, helping kids to cultivate social, emotional, physical and even academic skills that will have a lifelong impact in the classroom, the workplace and beyond.

The Role of Play in Early Childhood Development

In order to understand how playing sports and games impacts development, it’s important to understand just how rapidly children acquire skills that make different types of play possible in early childhood. According to, the capacity for play begins when a baby reaches the age of 3 to 4 months. At this time, a baby might be capable of grasping objects, such as rattles, and of squealing or laughing to grab his parents’ attention. As this baby becomes physically stronger and develops better eyesight and coordination, his capacity for simple play increases. When he reaches 8 to 12 months, he will likely enjoy simple games like peek-a-boo and finding toys hidden just out of view. Young kids’ physical and cognitive skills continue to accelerate into toddlerhood and the preschool years, when a child will begin to enjoy a wide variety of games and activities, including imaginative play, basic puzzles and matching games. By the time he reaches 3 to 5 years of age, he will develop the capacity to remember multi-part directions and to play simple board or card games, such as “Go Fish” or “Candy Land.” It’s also at this age that a child might be ready to join his first sports team or begin gymnastics, martial arts or dance classes.

Not only do the possibilities in play grow rapidly during the early years, but play expands kids’ physical abilities, too. When a baby learns to pass toys from hand to hand, for instance, he is developing his fine motor skills. When a toddler pedals his tricycle, kicks a ball across the lawn, tosses beanbags or plays hopscotch, he is refining his gross motor skills, or the control of the larger muscle groups of his body. Hitting a ball off a tee or maneuvering a ball into a goal develops hand-eye coordination. These forms of physical development and movement aren’t only necessary for kids who are destined to be elite athletes, either. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, it is ideal for all children to develop these physical skills at a young age because they enable kids to learn more complex skills of movement in later years. Without having a good idea of the ways their bodies can stop, start and keep going, kids may feel clumsy or uncoordinated later on, which may hinder participation in physical games and activities and lead to a more sedentary lifestyle.

In addition to helping kids develop physically, engaging in entertaining recreational activities during the early years also helps children develop socially, emotionally and mentally as they learn about their surroundings, negotiate with their peers, work as a team and learn to express emotions, such as the pride of making a goal or the frustration of losing a board game. In addition, in an August 2011 study in the journal Science, researchers Adele Diamond and Kathleen Lee found that sports may also have positive impacts on executive functions, such as self-control, discipline and flexibility. These abilities help a child self-regulate his emotions and delay gratification. Given these benefits, encouraging your child to participate in games and sports as early as possible will have long-term implications both within the classroom and beyond the school years.
Sports, Games and Other Fun at Home and at School

The advantages of play don’t stop in the earliest years of development. When children are school-aged, they continue to grow and learn through playing games, participating in sports and engaging in other forms of recreational entertainment at home and at school.

The Role of Play in the Home

According to a 2007 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), play — especially “child-driven” free play — offers myriad benefits to both parents and their children, and it plays an essential role in child development. One key benefit of engaging in play with children is the nurturing of a strong, enduring bond, which the AAP describes as critical to the appropriate development of children. You benefit from playing games with your children in the sense that you are able to see the world from your children’s perspectives, giving you immense insight into their thoughts and emotions.

Dr. Laura Markham at strongly supports the use of games within the home to promote connections and bonding. In fact, she recommends turning everyday situations into games to lighten the mood, to make chores more fun for young kids and to encourage cooperation within the household. For instance, turning common demands like “clean up your room!” or “please get dressed!” into a race or contest ensures that essential tasks get done, but you also have more fun, Dunder Mifflin style, with your child in the process.
Playing games at home also provides children with a safe, comfortable outlet to voice their budding emotions, especially negative ones, which can be difficult for young kids to express. For example, as a child learns to navigate the rules of a board game for the first time, he may feel frustrated, or waiting his turn may lead to impatience. A child’s emotional literacy can also be enhanced through games in a more direct way, such as having children identify the emotions expressed by faces on flash cards.

As children move through elementary school and beyond, continuing to play games and sports with them helps maintain a strong bond, especially during the rocky adolescent years, and it serves as a model for a healthy lifestyle that includes activities done solely for leisure or recreation.

The Role of Sports and Games at School
Active play is particularly important for school-aged children, who spend many hours a day seated behind desks and in front of televisions and computers.  One of the more obvious benefits of games and sports at school, particularly highly energetic forms of activity, is that they help kids burn off energy and counteract the effects of sedentary classroom time. According to the aforementioned AAP report, sports and games also ease the period of adjustment to the school setting and aid in the development of cognitive abilities.

Playing sports and games with classmates also promotes the development of a child’s social skills. UNICEF highlights the role of playing with children who have different linguistic, religious, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds in fostering good citizenship skills and developing the ability to be inclusive and appreciative of diversity. Additionally, an April 2014 article from highlights social benefits that include learning to wait one’s turn, understanding peers’ perspectives, learning to share materials (such as sports equipment or game pieces), and practicing communication skills, such as negotiation and conflict resolution. All of these are lifelong skills that not only have direct applications within the classroom, but also have an impact within the workplace, as will be explained later.

How Sports and Games Support Academics

Moving + learning = success

Aside from the social and physical benefits your children gain from playing sports and games in school, there is mounting evidence that these activities have direct impacts on children’s academic performance.  According to a May 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, physical activity boosts children’s attention spans, speeds up cognitive processing and enhances performance on standardized tests. According to, extracurricular activities like sports are also correlated with lower high school drop-out rates. In addition, researchers Jay Green and Daniel Bowen at the University of Arkansas found that schools with successful athletic programs (measured in terms of winning percentage) also tended to have higher scores on standardized tests.


Physically active games incorporated into academic lessons within the classroom also provide direct benefits to a child. An October 2010 study by J.E. Donnelly and colleagues in the journal Preventive Medicine found that introducing 90 minutes per week of academically focused physical activity into the classroom significantly enhanced students’ performance on several portions of the Wechsler Individual Achievement test, including the areas of spelling, math and reading. Therefore, a rousing game of hopscotch that incorporates a spelling lesson may prove quite beneficial to children in the classroom.


Let the games begin

Academically related games don’t necessarily have to be physical to produce results, either. A February 2010 study in the Educational Leadership journal found that the use of academic games, such as puzzles, within the classroom may boost student achievement by 20 percentile points. The researchers emphasize that in order to be effective, games must be designed thoughtfully, must focus on relevant and essential academic content, and should provide only inconsequential rewards; in other words, the results of the games should not impact kids’ grades.


Other research suggests that there is even room for games that are traditionally thought of as recreational. According to Gwen Dewar, PhD. at, board games, such as chess or mancala, encourage players to notice patterns, predict outcomes and look ahead to plan their moves, all of which are skills that apply to classroom subjects, such as math and science. In addition, Dewar cites a study in which preschoolers who played number-based board games developed math skills superior to those in the control group, who did not play such games.

Furthermore, some teachers have found success in bringing computer and video games into the classroom to enhance their lessons, even though these types of games are often criticized as being detrimental to academic success. A November 2011 article at describes teachers who have found success in using computer or mobile games to reinforce classroom concepts. Angry Birds, for instance, could reinforce your high school student’s physics lessons, and one teacher reports using Minecraft to teach his second-graders about teamwork, conflict resolution and leadership skills.


Social skills: making the grade

Even the social skills kids learn through playing sports and games with their peers may have positive impacts on academic performance. A July 2000 study by Caprara et al. in Psychological Science suggests that pro-social behaviors such as sharing, cooperating and consoling one’s peers —all of which can be learned through sports and games — are a good predictor of a student’s future academic performance.


How Academics Improve Performance in Sports and Games

While most research focuses on the effects of sports, games and other activities on academics, learning does provide some positive impacts on performance in sports and games. An interest in academics in general may influence your child’s performance in sports and games in a positive way. Dawn Aquilina of Loughborough University found that athletes who engaged in academic pursuits, such as seeking a degree, reported experiencing positive gains in their sporting performance.

While Aquilina’s study focused primarily on elite athletes, the lessons learned may also apply to younger competitors. If your child has a focus or interest outside of sports or extracurricular games, such as a favorite subject or a love of school in general, this additional interest may help to reduce stress and provide positive intellectual stimulation, both of which can improve performance in sports. Some athletes also stated that the benefits of each pursuit — athletics and academics — complemented the other. The skills your child gains in the classroom, such as the abilities to think critically and process verbal and visual instructions, may very well carry over to the playing field.

Internal and External Motivators That Drive Competitors to Excel

The factors that motivate athletes and other competitors to excel are likely of key interest to you as well as your child’s coaches and teachers. When children are driven to succeed — whether on the field, on the chess board or on an important test — the motivation to do so can either come from inside or outside influences.

Internal motivators come from within the competitor. Children who are internally motivated are driven to excel in sports or school because they genuinely enjoy them or are able to immerse themselves in the activities or subjects completely. Those who are driven solely by internal motivators, however, may care less about winning than about having fun.

External motivators include tangible rewards, such as trophies or grades, and the external recognition that comes with success and winning. Competitors who are solely motivated by external factors may experience great pressure to succeed — so great, in fact, that they may no longer enjoy the subject or sport.

A blend of both internal and external motivators, however, may help competitors and students excel within an activity or subject while still enjoying the pursuit.  In the classroom, external motivation in the form of grades and expectations from a teacher tends to be stronger than internal motivation. Teachers can actually take a page from the coach’s play book to develop a healthy balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. For example, teachers whose students are driven solely by the desire for a good grade may introduce assignments and activities that make material more fun, such as games. Likewise, coaches who struggle to motivate players who play only for “the love of the game” can use external motivators, such as benchmarking and rewards, to increase players’ and athletes’ drive to succeed.

How Sports and Games Translate into Workplace Skills

Unsurprisingly, a number of the skills children develop through playing sports and games throughout childhood have long-term implications, including a direct translation into the workplace after secondary school or college. In fact, according to David Williams at, athletes (and other competitors) are valuable assets within the workplace because they have the drive to practice rigorously, are goal-driven, work well on teams and embrace balance within their lifestyles. Here are some additional traits that stem from a background in athletics or gaming that translate directly into workplace skills.

Communication skills

The wealth of communication skills, including both verbal and non-verbal methods of communication, that players learn through sports and games directly translate into the workplace. For instance, players often learn to read the body language of opponents to predict their next move, or they may rely upon hand signals to communicate with their coaches. The ability to read such non-verbal cues through skilled observation may give employees an advantage in navigating business relationships and cultivating professional etiquette skills.

Conflict resolution

The ability to resolve conflicts is central to sports and games, whether it’s determining if a ball was out of bounds or demonstrating the ability to be a good sport. In the workplace, conflict resolution skills help employees resolve disagreements with maturity, ensuring better outcomes for the business and the harmony of the work environment.


Gameplay offers myriad opportunities to negotiate, whether it involves reaching a consensus on a rule or determining whose turn it is. In the workplace, negotiation skills strengthened through a childhood engaged in sports and games can translate into the skills necessary to land a higher salary during an interview or successfully ask for a raise.

Stress reduction

Just as sports and games offer a child a relaxing outlet from the demands of school and other childhood obligations, they provide adults in the workforce with a healthy, practical coping mechanism for relieving day-to-day stress. Engaging your child in sports and games during childhood also models your own ability to unwind via recreational means, creating a healthy model for stress management that will stick with your child.

Time management

Kids who play sports as early as elementary school must learn to balance sport-related commitments, such as games and practices, with academic demands, such as homework. This balancing act promotes the ability to manage one’s time, which directly impacts performance in the workplace once “practice” and “homework” are replaced by “meetings” and “deadlines.”

Competition and motivation

Experience with competitive sports and games may give your child a leg up when it comes to getting ahead in the workplace. A healthy balance of external and internal motivation cultivated by participation in competitive gaming or sports can help a child become an employee who works not only to achieve recognition and monetary rewards, such as bonuses, but who also finds personal satisfaction in doing his job well and acquiring new skills.

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Beyond being a fun way to socialize or unwind, developmentally appropriate sports and games offer a child a host of benefits, from strengthening the relationship between the child and his parents to improving the child’s abilities to focus and perform. Rather than worrying that sports and recreational games will impede your child’s academic performance and development, embrace these opportunities to bolster your child’s physical, social and emotional development during the early years, when children are best able to build a strong foundation for future skills. Doing so may not only pay off in terms of academic performance within the classroom, but your child could be better-prepared for the social, emotional and physical demands of the work world, too.