The Importance of Movement for Learning


Happy running over the suspension bridge little three years old child on playground on sunny day

Physical activity is essential for healthy brain development, according to research by neurologists at University of Illinois. Their work activities demonstrate “a causal effect of a physical program on executive control, and provide support for physical activity for improving childhood cognition and brain health.” Parents and teachers have instinctively recognized the association between movement and learning for years, and now science is providing the explanation for this connection.


Electrophysiological imaging shows exercise activates many more brain sectors than sedentary thinking. The brain sectors that light up after physical movement are specifically involved with executive functions; they resist distraction, maintaining focus and access to working memory and cognitive flexibility. Research cited in Additude notes that exercise provides these benefits by increasing the body’s release of norepinephrine and serotonin. The presence of these hormone-like compounds helps reduce the craving for novel stimuli and improves alertness, according to Harvard researcher John Ratey, MD.

Children with ADHD are most vulnerable to a deficit of exercise, according to another study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. This research found that while all kids’ test scores in reading and math improved after a 12-week exercise program, the scores of students with ADHD showed the greatest increase. In response to this and other recent research, Dr. Ratey comments that parents should “think of exercise as medication” for their children with ADHD.


An extensive review of research on the topic of physical activity adds important information regarding the linkage between play and cognitive development. When children were encouraged to engage in physically active games with their peers, their social development increased along with their cognitive ability. The Journal Pediatrics urges parents and teachers to consider the crucial importance of play as a foundation for healthy cognitive development. Pretend play in particular has a role in the evolution of problem-solving abilities from infancy onward. The inclusion of “make-believe” and fantasy play in children contributes to self-regulation, narrative recall and the ability to understand rules.

A balanced approach to supporting children with neuro-behavioral disorders like ADHD and autism must necessarily include plenty of opportunities for physical activity, creative play, and an overall understanding of the intricate relationship between brain and body.

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