School readiness involves the development of cognitive and social skills that aid the child as they enter formal schooling. A key cognitive component of school readiness is executive function (EF), which integrates working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Children with strong EF are able to take, hold, and manipulate information in memory (working memory), inhibit attending to distracting stimuli (inhibitory control), and can shift between activities within and outside the classroom (cognitive flexibility). As the early school environment also requires the child to learn how to listen, share, and communicate with peers, prosocial behaviors include the ability to interact with classmates and display appropriate social behavior.
Although numerous factors can promote positive cognitive and social development, outdoor play and sport participation play a unique role in this process. When children play outdoors they learn about their world as they crawl and climb, develop spatial skills as they estimate height and distance through running and jumping, and develop strategies to solve problems as they interact with peers. When children participate in sports, they learn to follow game rules, develop strategies to respond to teammates and opponents, and promote body–brain connections important for motor skill development.
Deep connections among the body, brain, and motor system aid in understanding how the cognitive and social components of school readiness are linked to outdoor play and sport participation. These connections are present early in development, with the motor system aiding the infant in focusing and shifting attention and regulating emotions. As the child develops each new motor skill shows a distinct learning trajectory and the child must continually relearn how to navigate in a body that is continually changing. With increased mobility, autonomy and control over social interactions develop as crawling and walking enable the child to initiate interactions with caregivers.
With further development, the freedom to run, hop, skip, and jump allows outdoor play to become a mechanism for the child to move at high and low levels of physical activity and interact and socialize with peers. Play can be broadly defined as either child- or adult-directed, with physical activity and social interactions often occurring during both. Research often views the social benefits of outdoor play through the lens of peer to peer interactions. When children participate in sports such as soccer or tennis, playground games such as tag and foursquare, or take turns riding a bike or scooter they are developing social skills that predict early and long-term academic success.
However, most research focused on the cognitive benefits of play do not always examine the quality of play (e.g., solitary vs group), but rather focus on examining the amount of physical activity a child achieves throughout the day. Thus, individual differences in the amount of physical activity acquired during recess, over a given week, or during an intervention are often compared to performance on EF tasks. Although results are not consistent across studies, children who spend more time at high levels of physical activity and participate in sports are found to show better EF.
Along with the cognitive benefits of physical activity, physically active children also show better aerobic fitness and motor skill development. In both pre-adolescent and adolescent populations, aerobic fitness is consistently associated with cognitive and physical health. When gross motor skills develop through participation in active play and sports, children form neuromuscular connections that are important for continued participation in physical activity as they mature, develop, and grow.
As the brain is maturing, neural pathways involved in social skills, EF, and movement and motor control are reinforced through experience. By running, jumping, and interacting with peers, children form a solid foundation for the social and cognitive components of school readiness to develop. Although numerous factors can promote positive academic development, outdoor play and sport participation play a unique and vital role in this process.