“Does your child ever do ‘walk’ rather than ‘run?!” I was asked this by an exasperated nursery teacher when my eldest son was about three. I reflected for a moment and then concluded; “Nope, I don’t believe he does!”.
The understanding of neuroscience and how the brain works was far less mainstream back then (my son is now 32!) but there was one switched-on teacher who allowed him to run madly around the playground to run off his jiggles and wriggles whenever he felt like it and, of course, my son learnt so much more in that class!
Nowadays there is a whole plethora of evidence which suggests that asking children to sit still for long periods of time can actually be detrimental to learning. For some children with additional needs, it can be distressing and even painful.
For optimum physical health and development, the NHS recommends that children and young people aged 5 to 18 should ‘aim for an average of at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity physical activity a day’. Whilst toddlers and pre-schoolers aged 1 to 5 should be physically active for at least three hours a day.
It’s well-recognised that regular exercise contributes to the physical growth and development of children, but how does exercise benefit our child’s brain and their ability to learn?
Physical activity stimulates the growth of new connections between cells in many important areas of the brain. Research from UCLA has shown that this can make it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections.
While exercising, norepinephrine and dopamine levels increase, which helps to regulate the attention system and prepare the brain for learning.
When learning through movement, information is more easily recalled. Exercise stimulates neural networks that help trigger learning, as well as the ability to focus and recall information.
Exercise increases the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a growth factor that supports and nourishes brain cells, as well as alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Studies have shown that exercise has a positive influence on executive functioning. This includes memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.
Research shows that physical play allows children to make mistakes, handle stress, conflict resolution, social skills, and emotional intelligence, alongside being a proven elevator of mood.
Exercise changes the biochemistry of the brain by increasing blood vessels and strengthening neuron connections. When the brain is flooded with blood, there is an improvement in cognitive development and increased retention of knowledge.
In the classroom, it has been shown that ‘movement time’ between lessons helps to raise blood pressure and epinephrine levels among drowsy learners. This can reduce restlessness and reinforce learning.
In fact, there is strong research to suggest that forcing children to sit still is actually harmful to their learning and concentration, especially when they’re young.
Exercise floods the brain with oxygen, increasing cognition and the ability to focus, concentrate and learn.
A study by the University of Illinois in 2013 found that children who play for at least 70 minutes a day, showed improved thinking skills, particularly in multitasking, compared to children who aren't as active.
Exercise fires up the cellular recovery process in our neurons, creating resilience to stress and improving coping skills.
In both adults and children, exercise promotes the production of endorphins - the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, which help to reduce stress and anxiety.
It has been found that multi-sensory environments, where children can touch, smell, see and hear their surroundings, like playing outdoors, create stronger and longer-lasting memories, than uni-sensory environments, like watching TV.
Research has shown that playing outdoors increases children’s attention and capacity to learn and connect with others. So when your children exercise outdoors, they reap double the benefits!
Have you noticed your child’s learning improves after exercise? Or have you noticed any of these benefits to your own brain?