Physical Movement Benefits Brain Development in Elementary Students

Ever notice how our elementary students simply love to fidget? In fact, sometimes it’s downright impossible to keep them still for any length of time! Of course, maybe that’s not a bad thing – research shows that physical movement is part and parcel of brain development.

Physical movement is a vital aspect of cognitive development. For elementary teachers, using a range of different physical movements can result in better-performing, healthier students.

A World of Tests

Today’s education system is largely one of assessment. Standardized tests, regular exams, and expectations are everywhere – assessments are the benchmark of a student’s success. Teachers themselves are not immune; we are continually tested to how our students match up.

In this world of constant assessment, the importance of physical movement falls to the wayside. However, the emphasis on academics over physical education is based on the incorrect belief that education is a zero-sum game.

Instead of education being “either” academic “or” physical, the two go hand-in-hand. Physical activity is likely to boost academic success and should not be ignored.

Sad Fact: The median PE budget for American schools is only $764 a year.

What Does the Science Say?

Physical movement and cognition are intrinsically linked. The cerebellum coordinates the body’s:

  • Posture
  • Balance
  • Speech
  • Motor behaviors

Fun Fact: The cerebellum contains nearly half of the brain’s total neurons!

Think of the cerebellum as the center of the body’s motor control. Connections link the cerebellum to other parts of the brain, including the part of the brain responsible for learning. The more the cerebellum develops neural pathways to the rest of the brain, the better linked the brain will be.

Learning experiences that combine movement with learning result in enhanced development of the frontal cortex – the home of higher-order thinking. The more we stimulate our student’s brains, the better they learn!

Tip: Efficient brains have high levels of interconnectivity. Physical movement helps build those connections.

Movement is Exercise, and Vice Versa

We know that exercise is good for the body (hardly a secret!). But physical movement is great for the brain as well — it floods the brain with important nutrients and neurotrophins. Physical movement helps the brain form those neural pathways (called neurogenesis).

What Sort of Practical Benefits Come From Physical Movement?

Higher levels of neurogenesis result in:

  • Increased cognition
  • Improved memory
  • Faster knowledge acquisition

An End to “Sit-N-Git”?

As teachers, we are constantly on the prowl for new and improved ways to educate our students. Ask nearly any elementary school teacher and they’ll tell you the same thing – students simply do not respond well to traditional “sit and listen” for an hour!

Tip: Use physical learning activities to break up your lessons into five-to-fifteen minute chunks.

What Sort of Movement do Students Respond To?

For elementary teachers, the world is our oyster. Consider some of the following movement patterns:

  • Individual movement with objects (balloons, balls, painted sticks, and scarves)
  • Doodling, which helps develop fine motor skills
  • Gross motor movements (sitting on yoga balls, moving up and around chairs, and so on)

You can also incorporate body movements:

  • Kicking balls
  • Balancing
  • Hopping
  • Rolling (watch out for dirty kids, though!)

Of course, if there’s one thing our elementary students love, it’s games!

  • Soccer, football, flag football, dodgeball
  • Simon Says, competitive relays, races
  • Jump rope, hide and seek, obstacle courses

Tip: You don’t need to get fancy. Students reap the benefits of physical movement in many ways.

Embracing Movement: Say No to Sitting

There is a time and place for static, passive learning–that place is not in an elementary classroom! The more we incorporate physical movement and active learning in our classrooms, the better our students will perform.

We can’t be afraid to experiment and break the mold of “sit-n-git”. Our students are worth it.

Real World Learning Matters

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