Summer 2019 Issue

Volume 11 | Number 2

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The Benefits of PLAY (Physical Learning & Activity Yards)

Tami Hendriksz, DO, FACOP, FAAP
Eric Worden

Physical Learning & Activity Yard (PLAY) is a proposal to create outdoor spaces on elementary school campuses that will offer a dynamic, inclusive open-air setting for the promotion of the physical, academic and emotional well being of every student at the elementary school and the community at large. The overarching goals of PLAY are three-fold: 1) To provide an outdoor environment that serves as a dedicated, easily accessible and safe space for the development and promotion of healthy habits; 2) To provide teachers and support staff an outdoor educational space to integrate the external environment into their daily lesson plans; 3) To provide an inclusive and accessible resource for positive interventions serving the unique needs of all students, including those with special needs.  

The objectives intended to be met as a result of completing this project are to assist the school in developing a three-year tiered plan to design and install a versatile outdoor space conducive to the cultivation of healthy habits, integration of physical activity and out-of-classroom learning into daily lesson plans and provide an outdoor classroom and activity space to cultivate the health and wellness of elementary school students.

Tier One includes the development of the physical activity space with an all-weather track and challenge course accessible for all individuals and abilities. The track and challenge course can be shaped and sized according to the schools’ space and budgetary constraints. Tier Two involves the creation of an outdoor classroom with shaded amphitheater style seating and development of a school garden. Tier Three allows for a post-needs assessment expansion of the spaces to potentially include water bottle filling stations, outdoor white boards, etc.  The Tiers can be implemented over a course of a few to many years, once again customizable to the needs and resources available on each campus and in each community.

PLAY will provide multiple ways to address the diverse needs of all student bodies. Safe and accessible spaces in the outdoor environment will allow for learners to release excess energy, engage in different tactile sensations, take a break from indoor classroom spaces, engage in physical activity and participate in individual and cooperative play. Studies have shown that physical activity has extensive benefits for students’ physical health (by preventing and addressing the dangerous sequelae associated with the pediatric obesity epidemic), mental health (children with and without ADHD and/or autism have improved focused and fewer behavioral outbursts after physical activity), and academic performance (tests scores are increased and learners are more engaged). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children receive at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day in order to receive such benefits. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends incorporating physical activity before, during, and after school in order to achieve the recommend 60 minutes.4,10 Currently, only 21.6% of six to 19-year-old children and adolescents in the United States attain 60 or more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on at least five days per week.3

The pediatric obesity epidemic affects all children regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic background or ability. Additionally, children with special needs are more likely to be obese.9 One of the barriers to addressing pediatric obesity is access to safe, accessible physical environment that can be used by people of varied ability levels.6 PLAY will serve as one of those spaces for the schools and the surrounding communities.

PLAY could be used for short three to five minute breaks from intensely structured/challenging indoor classroom activities as well as for full length lessons incorporating any curricular subject including language arts, science, math, environmental studies, physical education, nutrition and health. The space could be used by individual students, small groups or entire classes depending on the needs of the teacher and the students. PLAY will be centrally located and relatively confined to a single area ensuring ease of supervision.

Studies have shown that people who regularly engage in physical activity as children grow into healthier adults.1,2 PLAY offers the children at elementary schools and the surrounding communities the ability to develop a life-long love of physical activity and healthy habits that will have long lasting positive outcomes. Additionally, improvements in attention span, social behavior and learning have been shown in individuals with autism spectrum disorder as well as ADHD following aerobic exercise.7

The benefits of having an accessible, inclusive outdoor space that allows for more physical activity at local elementary schools include:4-10

Physical Health Benefits:

Academic Benefits:

Mental Health Benefits:

If more elementary school campuses could incorporate PLAY as a way to offer a dynamic, inclusive open-air setting for the promotion of the well being of all students and the community at large, then many current health concerns could be addressed. PLAY aids in the reduction of pediatric obesity and its related sequelae, as well as offering a space in which students could see the mental health and academic benefits that are associated with increased physical activity.


  1. US Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee report. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2008.
  2. US Department of Health and Human Services. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2008.
  3. National Physical Activity Plan Alliance. 2016 US report card on physical activity for children and youth. Columbia, SC; 2016.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. Atlanta, GA; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services; 2010.
  5. Michael SL, Merlo C, Basch C, et al. Critical connections: health and academics. Journal of School Health. 2015;85(11):740–758.
  6. Action for Healthy Kids website. Page on Including All Children. Accessed May 6, 2019.
  7. Menear K and Neumeier W.  Promoting Physical Activity for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Barriers, Benefits, and Strategies for Success. JOPRD.  2015: 86 (3).
  8. Healy S, et al.The effect of physical activity interventions on youth with autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analysis.  Autism Res. 2018 Jun;11(6):818-833. doi: 10.1002/aur.1955. Epub 2018 Apr 25.
  9. Diament M.  Obesity More Common Among Kids with Special Needs. Disability Scoop.  2011.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Comprehensive School Physical Activity Programs: A Guide for Schools. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2013

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