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Boys and girls who run, jump, play ball, and chase balls or each other develop better thinking skills, according to the largest study of physical activity and mental development in children ever conducted.

It isn't really news that children learn better and think better if they move around. It's something most of us have observed in one way or another. Developmental psychologists have confirmed this common sense observation with a study finding that children, even overweight children, get higher scores on math tests if they take a walk first. Other studies have found that children who get more aerobic exercise have better developed brains, especially the parts of the brain that are important for complex reasoning, and physical fitness has been found to be correlated to academic performance.

As a matter of established science, however, childhood educators didn't have strong evidence of whether active children were smarter, or smarter children were more active.

All the studies of physical activity and intellectual developmental were either short-term or correlational, until a group of pediatricians studied 221 children aged 7 to 9 who were either put in an after-school physical activities program for 9 months or on a wait list.

Focusing On Seven- To Nine-Year-Olds

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers focused on children aged 7 to 9, in the first to third grades, because previous studies had found that children of that age typically make their greatest gains in executive function, the ability to impose order on their thinking. Executive functions are essential for planning, organizing, strategizing, remembering and understanding details, and managing time and space. These abilities help children, and adults, focus on important details, ignore extraneous stimulation, and maintain concentration. Children who develop executive function at this age usually do well in the rest of their schooling, and children who fail to develop executive function at this age usually struggle for the rest of their academic careers and in life.

The research doctors wanted to find out if physical education could increase the development of executive function in this age group. They secured commitments from the families of 220 children to participate in an after-school exercise program for one school year. They brought all 220 children to the campus for physical fitness and executive function testing, and then they enrolled 110 children in their afternoon program, called FITKids, and put the other 110 children on a wait list as a control group.

Wild, Childish Play Stimulates The Brain

Every day after school for the next nine-month school year, the 110 children were bussed to the university campus for what a New York Times reporter described as "structured bouts of wild, childish play." The children were fitted with heart rate monitors and pedometers to measure improvements in physical fitness. They were taught games that resembled tag, and tutored in motor skills, such as bouncing a soccer ball (football) on the feet and dribbling a basketball.

The exercise curriculum was designed not just to improve basic physical fitness but also to increase motor skills.

Not every child attended every session every day, but most of the children got 70 minutes of exercise in each 2-hour session, walking and running an average of 2 miles (3.2 km) every day. The children weren't allowed to collapse; the children had 50 minutes for getting ready and for taking breaks during each session.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Hillman CH, Pontifex MB, Castelli DM, Khan NA, Raine LB, Scudder MR, Drollette ES, Moore RD, Wu CT, Kamijo K. Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function. Pediatrics. 2014 Oct
  • 134(4):e1063-71. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-3219.PMID: 2526642.
  • Reynolds, Gretchen. How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains. New York Times. 8 October 2014.
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  • Photo courtesy of KWDesigns via Flickr:

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