More Movement, Smarter Kids


Most parents understand how physical activity impacts not only their child’s physical development but also his social/emotional development. But intellectual development? What could movement possibly have to do with learning? After all, schools — where most of a child’s learning is supposed to take place — are the prime promoters of inactivity. (“Sit still.” “Stop squirming.” “Don’t run.” “Stay in your seat.”) If movement were critical to learning, wouldn’t schools be employing it?
Certainly, you’d think so. Those of us who’ve understood the connection between moving and learning for a very long time have been waiting just as long for the educational “revolution.” And yet, not only is movement in the classroom a rarity, but also physical education and recess are being cut back as though they were completely irrelevant to children’s growth and development. Perhaps the revolution finally will arrive when parents become aware of movement’s role in cognitive development and learning and begin to insist chools do what’s right for children and not merely what the policy makers think they should be doing.

The Earliest Form of Learning
As Einstein so succinctly pointed out, “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” Piaget, the noted child development specialist studied by future teachers, labeled this learning sensorimotor and determined it was a child’s earliest form of learning. Since then, brain research has proven them both right.

But the most recent brain research has done much more than that. It’s now understood that, because a child’s earliest learning is based on motor development, so too is much of the knowledge that follows. The cerebellum — the part of the brain previously associated with motor control only— is now known to be, as Eric Jensen, author of numerous books on brain-based learning, puts it, a “virtual switchboard of cognitive activity.” Study after study has demonstrated a connection between the cerebellum and such cognitive functions as memory, spatial orientation, attention, language and decision making, among others.

The Mind and Body Work Together
Thanks to advances in brain research, we now know that most of the brain is activated during physical activity — much more so than when doing seatwork. In fact, according to Jensen, sitting for more than 10 minutes at a stretch “reduces our awareness of physical and emotional sensations and increases fatigue.” He says this results in reduced concentration and, most likely, discipline problems.

Movement, on the other hand, increases blood vessels that allow for the delivery of oxygen, water and glucose (“brain food”) to the brain. And this can’t help but optimize the brain’s performance.

It is a huge mistake to think the mind and body are separate entities. The truth is that the domains of child development — physical, social, emotional and cognitive — simply do not mature separately. There’s an overlap and interrelatedness among them, and children do not differentiate among thinking, feeling and moving. Thus, when a child learns something related to one domain, it impacts the others.

Physical Experience
Research shows that movement is young children’s preferred mode of learning, because they best understand concepts when they’re physically experienced. For example, children need to get high and low, small and large, wide and narrow shapes to truly understand these quantitative concepts. They need to act out simple computation problems (demonstrating the nursery rhyme “Three Little Monkeys” to discover three minus one equals two) to comprehend subtraction. They have to take on the straight and curving lines of the letters of the alphabet to fully grasp the way in which the letters should be printed.

The Missing Link
Eric Jensen labels this kind of hands-on learning implicit — like learning to ride a bike. At the opposite end of the spectrum is explicit learning — like being told the capital of Peru. He asks, if you hadn’t ridden a bike in five years, would you still be able to do it? And if you hadn’t heard the capital of Peru for five years, would you still remember what it was? Extrinsic learning may be quicker than learning through exploration and discovery, but the latter has greater meaning for children and stays with them longer. There are plenty of reasons for this, but one of them just may be that intrinsic learning creates more neural networks in the brain … and it’s more fun!
Carla Hannaford, in “Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head,” states, “We have spent years and resources struggling to teach people to learn, and yet the standardized achievement test scores go down and illiteracy rises. Could it be that one of the key elements we’ve been missing is simply movement?”

Rae Pica is the author of “A Running Start” (Marlowe & Company, 2006). She has been a children’s physical activity specialist for 26 years and is the author of 15 other books, including the textbook “Experiences in Movement” (third edition) and the a