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Physical activity: why it's good for children

12 April, 2022

Physical movement is essential in brain formation and each repetitive movement strengthens neural circuits and cements communication between body and brain.

Helen Battelley (educational expert) presented at the First7 Education Centre's Early Education Conference on "Physical Activity in the Home and Backyard to Develop Knowledge, Skills and Competencies in COVID-19" some thoughts on the importance of physical activity in children's lives. Sustained physical activity is essential in brain development. A child's first movements take place in the womb and initiate development and communication with the world. The brain can only handle one neural process at a time. Children need repetition in order to reinforce the processes. By age 6, neural processes are being created and if they are not activated by age 14, they are lost.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system of the brain and is responsible for responding to danger. The amygdala determines emotional responses by sorting and categorising sensory stimuli as safe or threatening. Dangerous stimuli are blocked by activating the 'fight, flight, freeze' mechanism. The amygdala cannot distinguish between real dangers and what is perceived as danger, and this can lead to distorted reactions and false alarms.

The amygdala is more developed in males, which is why, in childhood, faster and more amplified reactions can be seen in boys.  Developing a secure attachment and strong relationships with parents helps to develop the amygdala and activate the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for calmness.

The ability to sit still is the greatest challenge in the early childhood years, as it requires total muscle control and the ability to control posture.  This control develops within the vestibular system, which is most effectively supported by constant physical activity.

Between 2 and 5 years old, physical activity should occupy at least 3 hours a day. Regardless of the season, the context or any other factors, children need movement, both indoors and outdoors. Unfortunately, daily life and the recent pandemic context have reduced physical activity for both adults and children. 

Physical activity is a source of psychological stress for the brain, and in the process of balancing this stress, the brain's functions develop and its ability to adapt to stress increases.

What is recommended physical activity under the age of 5?

Physical activity that uses the body's energy in a balanced way, alternating it with moments of rest, is recommended. Examples of physical activity suitable for young children include walking, climbing, dancing, rolling toys or rope exercises. Activities that develop fine motor skills, including object control, are also recommended during this period.

Exercises accompanied by music and movements imitating different means of transport, animals, crafts are a way of combining learning with physical activity. 

Dancing is a way to smile with your feet :-)

Studies show that standing barefoot helps us use more receptors and greatly develops our movement capacity. Barefoot dancing is therefore recommended and will also entertain children. Dancing is an activity that activates the neural system and can even be done remotely.

To support development and physical activity, a supportive environment is needed. It should provide a sense of belonging, developmentally appropriate resources, sufficient space for guided but also free play, age- and height-appropriate activities. There should also be a set of rules, play and movement partners, low noise and opportunities for self-initiative.

Outdoor play is a huge added value in a child's development

This includes activities such as gardening, climbing, building, swimming, observing and exploring nature. Nature itself is a great teacher for children and should be exploited to its true value to facilitate unstructured play.

Parents' busy lives affect children's physical activity

It is therefore very important to make a joint effort, parents and educators, to facilitate as much as possible movement play, outdoor play, structured and free physical activity. We can use whatever nature provides, whatever we have in the house or in the yard to create play routes, obstacle courses and anything that can stimulate movement.

It is also very important to show children our personal example. Let's try to get better every day to encourage children to overcome this difficult period and develop harmoniously further. 

Here are some extra resources about the topic. 

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