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Children must engage in active play for optimal brain function. Physical activity sharpens the mind. Extra homework may not help children advance in school nearly as much as daily active play. Children who run around for 70 minutes a day exhibit increased cognitive skills including focus and multitasking.
A new study shows the brain-body connection is stronger than many people realized. People were made to move. Humans evolved on the go; traveling around to get food or performing physical labor for most of the day in order to survive. Today most human lives are sedentary. Even those who toil by the sweat of their brow are not as active as their ancestors of even a hundred years. All that physical activity was essential for developing cognitive ability. Study author Charles Hillman, professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois, emphasizes, “If you study the anthropology of humankind, we were designed to move.” Movement, or lack thereof, can shape children’s brains.
For the study, seven to nine year old children were separated into two groups. The experimental group took part in a program called FITKids, Fitness Improves Thinking in Kids, at the University of Illinois. After school each day the children met for a snack and a nutrition lesson, and then played games such as soccer and tag. The goal was to recreate the kind of physical activity that children have historically experienced, not an adult-style workout. The control group of children was put on a waiting list for the program and so did not get the same level of activity.
The test group of children performed better on cognitive tests. They performed tasks more quickly and accurately than the children in the control group. Brain scans of all the children showed that the FITKids brains lit up with activity while performing the tests in contrast with the nonactive kids whose brains remained muted.
One important finding was that children did not need to drastically improve fitness levels to see cognitive improvement. The FITKids group only became 6 percent more fit, but experienced much greater increase in their thinking skills. Any movement will sharpen children’s minds.
So why do schools and parents insist on hours of homework and other activities that keep children sedentary? When coupled with computer time, TV viewing and video games, children are severely under-stimulated physically. Soccer practice twice a week will not fill the gap. Children need to be actively playing every day.
Do towns and cities across the United States provide enough opportunities for activity? Playgrounds are disappearing or being down-sized for toddlers. Children of working parents often need to stay at home after school for safety. Even activity schedules and family time can interfere with unrestricted play-time. The study results indicate that as a society, Americans need to place more emphasis on letting children be children without fear of them losing their competitive edge.
The organization Race to Nowhere has been trying to raise the discussion about busy children for years. They worry about the effect academic pressure has on the physical and emotional health of children. They advocate for no homework, especially for lower grades, so that children have time to play. Hillman’s study provides more evidence that running around outside may make children better students than bringing schoolwork home.
Physical activity boosts overall health, strengthens muscles, including the heart, and reduces obesity. It also improves brain function and thinking skills. The connection between the mind and body needs to be respected. Children whose brains are still developing need to exercise their bodies in order to fully exercise their intellectual potential. Children must engage in active play for optimal brain function.
By: Rebecca Savastio