Encouraging more physical activity in children’s everyday lives is a no-brainer – after all, everyone knows it can help reduce the risk of serious health problems. But movement brings other, less obvious, benefits too.
who talk about getting children away from their screens and on to the playing fields are usually thinking about physical health: reduced risk of obesity and circulatory conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, for instance. However, movement has far more to offer than mere physical fitness.
“Movement is the original mother tongue through which children communicate with their environment, even before they’ve learnt to speak,” says Heidi Samonig, a children’s physiotherapist from Graz, Austria. “Through movement, children learn to act independently and develop their personalities.”
For instance, we first learn the principle of acceleration by throwing a ball, and when we fall off a swing, we learn the meaning of gravity as well as how to improve our coordination. According to Heidi Samonig, children who don’t move enough often have deficiencies in areas such as coordination and dexterity. However, through sport they can build self-confidence and perseverance.
Even social skills are influenced by sport, which can teach teamwork, fairness and the ability to lose gracefully. In fact, the latest studies show that strong muscle use can influence attention span and ability to regulate emotions, control impulses and tolerate frustration – the very same abilities that many teachers and psychologists say are increasingly lacking in the classroom.
One potential solution is to increase the amount of physical activity that children do in nurseries and schools. The theory behind this is psychomotor activity, which focuses on the connection between physical activity and the psyche.
“Movement is a basic need just like eating and drinking,” says Professor Dr Otmar Weiss, head of the psycho-motor activity course at the University of Vienna in Austria. “This need has to be fulfilled. And it can be combined with cognitive challenges in order to learn more efficiently.”
As far as learning is concerned, research shows that physical activity actually encourages the new formation of nerve cells in the brain. And as movement increases blood circulation, ideal conditions are created to help these nerve cells connect with each other. In addition, the number of neurotransmitters – the brain’s chemical messengers that convey signals between nerve cells – is increased. So, does movement promote intelligence? Neuroscience suggests that it may.
It is also a remedy for stress. “In every respect, from the microcellular to the psychological level, movement does not just prevent the effects of chronic stress; it can even cause them to recede,” writes John J Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, USA, in his book ‘Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain’.
It’s well established scientifically that movement boosts levels of endorphins, also known as ‘happy hormones’. The mood enhancers serotonin and dopamine are released, while the concentration of blood levels of noradrenalin, a hormone that encourages motivation, are also increased, creating the perfect conditions to combat stress and boost mood. After all, movement is fun – this is easy to see from watching children run around together.
Yet, despite all these happy hormones, not all children enjoy sport, for instance when too much pressure is placed on them at an early age. And, of course, there are also children who simply don’t like moving around a lot. “We have to recognise this fact too,” states Heidi Samonig. “The way in which children come to know their own bodies should remain a positive experience.”