Why Movement Is So Important for Children’s Brain Development

kids playing tag

When children sit more than they move, they are hindering their ability to learn’

The pandemic has forced many children out of the classroom and in front of a screen for virtual learning. How is this impacting their brain development? Meet Preston Blackburn, founder of Pop, Hop and Rock, a children’s motor development program. Blackburn, a self-described “expert at play,” says, “It’s simple. Big body play builds brains.”

We asked Blackburn how activities like skipping and hauling buckets of sand across a playground can contribute to better performance in the classroom. She also shared easy ways to incorporate movement into your children’s daily routines.

Katie Couric Media: Why is movement so important for children’s development? 

Preston Blackburn: Children begin life dominated by the right side of their brains, and as they grow, they develop a more balanced brain when the right and left hemispheres begin to converse and coordinate. This balance helps kids operate in a more logical and less emotional world. The very best way to develop this cross-brain conversation is through movement — the bigger the better. Simply put, big body play builds brains. 

What do you define as ‘big body play’?

Big body play uses the whole body for fun, usually through a game or activity. Children naturally crave big body play, which recruits most of the body at one time using motor skills like running, climbing, swinging, sliding, somersaulting, spinning or even roughhouse play.  

What does ‘big body play builds brains’ mean exactly? 

Here are a few examples. 

  • Kids who move in big body play build core and upper body strength, which helps them stay comfortable when it is time to sit at a desk, hold a book, and listen to the teacher. 
  • Kids who climb, build forts, or carry buckets of sand across a playground build strength in their hands, which helps them hold a pencil or scissors, zip up a coat, or brush their teeth. 
  • Kids who spin, somersault, hang upside down, jump, or pull a wagon organize their brains and bodies, so they can see words on a page clearly and manage volumes of incoming data without shutting down. 

However, more and more we are pushing academic learning younger and younger without considering the developmental needs of the whole child. A study out of The University of Virginia in 1998 found that only 31% of kindergarten teachers felt their students should learn to read in kindergarten. By 2006, that number had risen to 65%. As a result, kindergarten time focused on literacy rose 25%, from 5.5 hours a week to 7 hours a week, leaving less time for developmentally appropriate kindergarten activities like recess. Giving kids ample time in big body play helps them do what they were designed to do: move for the purpose of building their social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive success!

How can physical literacy impact a child’s ability to learn? What role does it play in their behavior?

The Aspen Institute defined 7 fundamental movement patterns: throwing, kicking, running, jumping, catching, striking, and skipping. Whether a child is going to be an NCAA athlete or not, they need physical literacy in order to find success in the classroom. Each of the 7 Aspen Institute skills plays an important role in building key strengths and skills children need when they are listening to their teacher, noodling out a math problem, filling out worksheets, reading a book, or playing with a friend. 

Let’s take skipping for example. Children should be able to skip by age 4 and should be proficient with smooth and controlled skipping by 6. In order to be successful with skipping, children need to:

  • Have strong bodies. The stronger their core, legs, and arms, the easier a skip will be. If their bodies are strong, it will be easier to sit at a desk and hold a book, move a pencil across the page, and sit still and listen to a story. 
  • Understand where their arms and legs are and how to move them. That control translates to moving a pencil across a page and playing blocks with a friend.
  • Understand how much space they take up. When kids understand how much space they take up while moving, they can judge space and direction, which is essential for writing. 
  • Internalize a pattern. Skipping requires a pattern (step-hop, step-hop) and patterns require sequences and rhythm. Proficiency at skipping helps internalize sequence, rhythm, and patterning. These are all skills we need for the rhythm of language, the sequencing of writing, the patterns of math, the order of logic and reasoning.
  • Use both sides of their brains. Skipping requires the two sides of the brain to communicate effectively. The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa. The more effectively the two sides of the brain communicate, the better our problem-solving and creative-thinking skills —essential for academic work as well as building relationships. 

At-home learning means kids are getting more screen time than ever before. What can parents do to balance that time with activity?

Finland is known for scoring in the top levels of international academic exams. There, children get 15 minutes of outdoor recess in every hour of classroom time. Outdoor play allows them to explore with their bodies and gives their brains ample time to reset, helping them achieve academic success. Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas decided to apply this theory by tripling their recess time to 60 minutes every day. Teachers worried that they would not be able to maintain their academic schedule, but by winter break, every single class was ahead of the academic schedule despite 40 fewer minutes of class time each day. Behavior improved, so class time was more efficient and effective. 

When children sit more than they move, they are actually hindering their ability to learn and find success. We must make movement time a priority with in-person or virtual learning. If virtual school doesn’t make time for breaks and movement, parents can still find time to get in some big body play for their kids. Before or after school is a great time to get hearts pumping and bodies moving.  

How much active-time should kids get each day? 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that children 3-5 years old incorporate activity throughout the day while kids 5-17 years old get at least 60 minutes of active time each day. As mentioned before, all children biologically crave physical activity, so stepping away from the screens will build the strengths and skills needed for happy, healthy kids.

What are three — maybe unexpected — easy ways for parents to work movement into their children’s days? 

1. Turn chores into games. Taking out the trash, sweeping the porch, raking the leaves, washing the dishes. All of these activities build strengths like core, upper body, lower body, and hand strength. For example, make taking the trash out a race. Each child gets a trash bag to drag or carry. 

2. Log roll bowling. This is a great game if you’re stuck inside because of COVID or weather. Make an open space and use empty plastic bottles, milk cartons, cereal boxes, or whatever else you have on hand to set up your pins. Have your kids lie down and log-roll across the space to knock over the pins.

3. Target practice. Put a piece of painter’s tape or a sticky note on the wall. Mark a place on the floor about two feet from the wall. Using a balloon, have the child try to hit the mark by throwing or kicking. With each success, move the starting place back six inches. No balloons? Roll up a sock to make an inside-safe ball.

Preston Blackburn is an American Council on Exercise Certified Health Coach, Group Fitness Instructor, Youth Fitness Specialist, and the mother of two twenty-something daughters who are currently taking on the world. Located in Richmond, Virginia, Preston has never been one to sit still. So, she turned her love of movement and learning into her perfect career. For two decades, her company, Pop, Hop & Rock™ has been designing and delivering youth fitness programs to rave reviews and big smiles. 

In 2021, Preston is building on the success of Pop, Hop, and Rock™ by launching the Pivot to Play Certification™ to help share the philosophy and proof that fun is smart. Through the Pivot to Play Certification™ Preston shares her expertise, knowledge, and curriculum to help others build a business inspiring kids to move. Who knew having fun could lead to happier kids and better grades in the classroom? We did. For more information contact Preston at smartfun@pophopandrock.com