Exercise Grows a Better Brain

“Sit still!” “Put all four legs of your chair on the floor!” “Turn around!” “Get back in your seat!” “Put your bottom on the chair!” How many times do you think your child hears those words? I bet that at any time you could walk down the hallways of an elementary school and hear those words at least a half dozen times. I’m the first one to admit that even knowing what I know, I’m guilty of using these words during mealtime or homework time at our house.

We live in an era of so many technological advances aimed at helping our children learn complex academic skills at earlier ages. From programs designed to help our infants learn to read, to math and reading apps for our smartphones, to smart boards for the classrooms, to constant curriculum changes in our schools, the advances are mind blowing. There is one thing that remains constant yet can often be forgotten with all of these advances; children need to MOVE to LEARN. Let me say that one more time. Children need to MOVE to LEARN. Children learn best when they are given opportunities to move and physically experience the concepts they are learning and the world around them. Not only do they learn best this way, it is also much more fun too!

The mind and body are not separate entities. They are dependent on each other with movement being “food for the brain”. Exercising the body not only strengthens our muscles, bones, hearts, and lungs but also strengthens the areas of the brain that are key for learning. It has been shown to improve memory, attention, problem solving, spatial perception, ability to process and retain new information, and overall academic scores.

Let’s also consider for a moment that children not only need to move in order to learn but also need to move in order to sit still. You might be thinking to yourself right now that that doesn’t make any sense. It’s true. It is only after a child learns how to move their bodies effectively and understands how their movements are affected by gravity and the world around them that they will be able to develop control and be able to maintain a state of stillness.

Think about that child who is constantly tilted back on the back legs of their chair rocking back and forth. They are seeking out the vestibular input (This system is in the inner ear and receives input with head movement.) that this rocking motion gives them. A child who has to tap their leg while seated, tap their pencil on their desk, or chew on the end of their pencil is seeking out proprioceptive input (This input is received through our muscles or joints when we do heavy work or receive deep pressure.) When they are moving, they are focused. As soon as they have to stop moving, they lose focus.

The part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning. There are numerous studies out there about schools that allowed children to have gym time prior to learning time. One in particular at Naperville Central High School outside of Chicago saw a marked improvement in reading and math scores in their students who were struggling when they gave them gym time prior to these classes and gave them other opportunities for movement even within the classroom.

Exercise grows a better brain.

Studies also suggest that certain types of movement (movements that stimulate the vestibular system) can have a profound effect on learning. Spinning activities in particular (which offer some of the most intense vestibular input) have been shown to increase alertness, attention, and relaxation in the classroom. This is why, in my opinion, it is a shame that merry go rounds and swings have been removed from many school playgrounds and parks. Swinging on a swing and going around in circles on a merry go round provide wonderful opportunities for vestibular input. Sure they are fun activities, but they are also beneficial and in some instances vital for learning. Other great forms of vestibular input are swinging, sliding, jumping, rolling, and sliding.

I would suggest that next time you are about to utter the words “Sit still!” you stop and think for a moment. What is your child trying to tell you (or show you) through their movements? They may be trying to tell you that they need to move to learn or to focus on what they are doing. Instead of uttering those words “sit still” a hundred times and losing your cool when they don’t seem to obey, try letting your child take a quick break to get some proprioceptive or vestibular input. Just a few jumping jacks, a crab walk around the kitchen table, a few spins in a circle while pretending to be a helicopter, spinning around in circles on the office chair, or touching their toes then jumping up in the air 10 times may just do the trick. You may be amazed that by letting them move you are increasing the likelihood that they can sit still and focus.

To learn more, order your copy of “Why is My Child Doing That?” A Sensory Approach to Understanding Your Child’s Behavior.

Cindy Utzinger

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