As parents and teachers can attest, young kids are tough to keep down. They race around the backyard, slam dunk the garbage and pirouette at only the slightest hint of music. Though this level can be tiring to manage, rest assured – all this activity is a natural and very important part of children’s physical and mental development.
Physical activity and learning
According to the American Heart Association, physical activity in children helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints. In addition, physically active children enjoy other health benefits, such as weight control, lower blood pressure, improved psychological well-being and a tendency to be more physically active as adults.
Recent research also indicates that daily physical activity (such as physical education classes and recess) positively affects academic achievement in a host of ways, including increased concentration, improved reading, writing and math test scores, and a reduction in disruptive behavior.
Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve memory and may strengthen certain parts of the brain. The oxygen intake during exercise may also enhance the important connections made between neurons (nerve connections) in the brain.
Staying physically fit can give kids the endurance to sit for lengths of time while learning in a group setting, to hold their upper bodies upright and maintain eye contact needed to learn. Physical activity that strengthens the large muscle groups leads to an increased ability to hold a pencil or crayon properly and to form letters and numbers when writing and computing.
Physical education: It’s not your mother’s gym class
For many grown people, the gym classes of their youth are less than pleasant memories of dodge ball that eliminated all but the most aggressive kids or being asked to do sit-ups until they collapsed into a sweaty, panting heap. Today, the goal of school-based physical education is to tune into the abilities and interests of all children, including those with physical and other special needs. Through the physical education curriculum, children are introduced to a host of games and physical activities that will not only help them become better learners, but can spark a life-long desire to remain physically active and fit.
Children also learn about the benefits of the exercise they are performing (such as cardiovascular health, stress management and maintaining a healthy weight, muscle strength, endurance and flexibility), sportsmanship and cooperation, how to exercise safely, as well as how to make healthy food choices.
On average, children in elementary school participate in physical education two or three times per week. The recommendation by the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine is that that all children (and adults) participate in at least one hour of moderately intense exercise daily. For this reason, it is important that children are encouraged to stay active after school and on the weekends.
Try to introduce a variety of new activities if your child seems to lack an interest in becoming physically active. Moderately intense exercise includes walking to school, playing on the playground or in the backyard, or completing chores around the house. Believe it or not, a simple walk around the block is a complete form of moderate exercise that tones and strengthens the body and helps calm the mind.
If your child shows an interest in organized sports, dance or gymnastics, encourage it. Many schools and municipalities offer after-school athletics, as do local Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs and the YMCA.
As often as possible, parents and other adult family members should participate in physical activities along with their children. Every time you bike, walk, skate or dance around the living room with your children, you are providing a positive role model for physical activity and getting a little exercise to boot! To encourage everyone’s participation, take turns letting each family member pick his or her favorite activity for the whole group to do together each week.
Age-appropriate sports and exercise
Children 6 and under:
At this stage, children are developing at very different rates, physically as well as socially and emotionally. Whatever unstructured play they are interested in that gets them moving – be it sledding, tumbling or simply making snowmen – is generally best. Since they are developing in so many ways, children who shy away from an organized sporting activity at age five may suddenly develop the confidence to try it again a year later. Use your own children’s interest levels and aptitudes as guidelines to choose when and whether to introduce them to sports and activities.
Children over age 7:
Most experts agree that children should be 7 or older before they begin competitive team sports (such as baseball, soccer, football and gymnastics, among others). By their nature, many organized sports involve physical contact that could be harmful to children younger than age 7. Young children may also find it difficult to handle the emotional implications of losing.
Even at age 7 and above, it is OK if your children are not interested in organized sports as long as they pursue activities that help them stay physically fit. The key is finding activities they like to do. These can include biking, swimming, running (distances of 1/4 to 1/2 mile are appropriate for most children at this age), dancing, walking and easy hiking, martial arts and yoga.
- Health.com: “5 Tips for Staying Active with Kids and Family.” www.health.com
- Office of the Surgeon General: “Help Kids Stay Active.” (a list of selected program resources from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that can help support overweight and obesity prevention activities at all levels.” www.surgeongeneral.gov
- PBS Parents: “Keep Kids Active.” www.pbs.org/parents