It’s a recurring theme across the nation: add more hours to the school day, and eliminate “extracurriculars” like recess, gym class, music study, and other non-core curriculum.
It’s probably a big, big mistake, if recent research is any indication.
Come to find out, those fourth grade boys getting amped over a game of soccer on the playground may be doing more than getting sweaty and winded. They could, in fact, be giving a boost to their maturing brains.
According to the most ambitious study ever conducted of physical activity and cognitive performance in children, physical activity is essential for juvenile health and development, even when it comes to the “brain skills” that most impact academic prowess.
“The news that children think better if they move is hardly new,” noted the New York Times. Recent studies have shown that children’s scores on math and reading tests rise if they go for a walk beforehand, even if the children are overweight and unfit. Other studies have found correlations between children’s aerobic fitness and their brain structure, with areas of the brain devoted to thinking and learning being generally larger among youngsters who are more fit.”
But did fitness alter the children’s’ brains or do youngsters with well-developed brains just gravitate to exercise?
A study published in Pediatrics documents how researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tried to answer that question.
“They approached school administrators at public elementary schools in the surrounding communities and asked if they could recruit the school’s 8- and 9-year-old students for an after-school exercise program,” reports the Times. “This group was of particular interest to the researchers because previous studies had determined that at that age, children typically experience a leap in their brain’s so-called executive functioning, which is the ability to impose order on your thinking. Executive functions help to control mental multitasking, maintain concentration, and inhibit inappropriate responses to mental stimuli.”
The volunteer children were divided in half — some for an after-school exercise/play program, the other half for control group status.
“We wanted them to play,” said Dr. Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois who led the study.
The program lasted for a full school year and at the conclusion of the study, both groups returned to the university to re-do the original physical and cognitive tests.
In addition to the children in the exercise group being more physically fit than they were at the start, the youngsters in the exercise group also displayed substantial improvements in their scores on each of the computer-based tests of executive function.
Cutting out recess, or gym class, or play time could be extremely shortsighted, according to Hillman.
“If you want young students to do well in reading and math, make sure that they also move,” Hillman advises.
In the final analysis, educators and parents need to know that the playground may indeed be the place where some serious brain work is happening every school day.