Skip to main content

Can exercise make kids smart?

Published on: October 08, 2009

Watch kids playing at any playground. All that running and jumping constitutes crucial exercise, which helps kids stay fit. It may not look like it, but the fun they are having while they play can also help make them smarter.

“Exercise is beneficial to both body and mind,” says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and author of What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. “Exercise has been shown to improve blood flow to the brain, improving cognition. It increases the production of new neurons that occurs in select brain regions throughout life, especially in the area of the brain crucial for storing new memories. Exercise also stabilizes mood and helps fight depression.”

Seattle parent Anne Mercier has found that physical exercise is imperative for the healthy emotional and academic growth of her child. Faced with hours of homework daily, her son’s academic performance plummeted. It turned out his teacher regularly kept underperforming kids in from recess to give them more time for academics. “I began to feel that his teacher was restricting exercise for the kids who needed it most,” says Mercier.

Frustrated, she withdrew her child from the public school and homeschooled him for the remaining half of fifth grade. “We did only about an hour of serious academics a day at home,” she says. “In addition, we played tennis, bowled, rode our bikes, walked and enjoyed lots of exercise."

Confirming her theory that he needed more physical exercise, when her son returned to public school in sixth grade, he had his best academic year ever.

As a result, Mercier became a local “recess advocate” for the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play, a national affiliate of the International Play Association (IPA), a nongovernmental organization, founded in Denmark in 1961, that is committed to “protect, preserve, and promote” play as a fundamental right for all humans.

Mercier became convinced that children need exercise, including recess and unstructured play, to help them to learn. “Play is the work of the child,” agrees Eliot. “Children take play seriously; while fun, the best play is absorbing, challenging, and gives the child a sense of accomplishment.”

The IPA was established as a response to increasing exercise obstacles in children’s play — such as more urbanization and fewer play spaces. IPA argues that its mandate, to promote the child’s right to play, is even more important today. The organization opposes “barriers to free play,” which includes issues such as “overemphasis on formal learning, children’s isolation, competition of entertainment pastimes and consequent shrinking of time for play, and a range of safety issues.”

The American Association for the Child’s Right to Play arms parents with information about the benefits of exercise and recess and they facilitate the connection with the IPA, which hosts annual conferences around the world to educate communities on the benefits of recess, exercise and free play for children.

Locally, recess has been under fire over the years in public schools. The Tacoma School District actually banned recess completely in 2004, but has been slowly reinstating it following complaints from parents.

Legislators have been concerned enough about the reduction in exercise and recess in the public schools to introduce and debate legislation requiring opportunities for physical exercise in each school day. House Bill 1188 was introduced to do just that, but did not pass during the last legislative session in Olympia.

Kids need to move

Physical exercise is key, according to recess advocates. While many kids play by sitting in front of a computer, what they really need is physical play. “Movement matters,” says Terry Goetz, director of education and outreach at the Creative Dance Center in North Seattle, where she teaches classes for children from infancy through the teen years. These classes all incorporate essential movement patterns that growing bodies should experience to “wire” the brain by creating connections between neurons, which are essential for learning, she says.

“We sometimes see kids and adults who evidence lack of optimal wiring,” says Goetz. “However, research tells us that our brains have plasticity throughout life. If neurological pathways are healthy, exercise can strengthen them. If those pathways do not exist, movement can help create them.”

Exercise matters in part because development is cumulative, according to Eliot. “Each advance builds on the preceding ones. Babies must first acquire sensory and motor skills before they can move on to greater abstractions such as language and thought.”

Exercise also supports the process of academic learning, according to Dee Dickinson, retired teacher and founder of New Horizons for Learning, a Seattle organization providing learning resources for educators nationally since 1980. “Passive learning is the least effective way to learn. Neurological research shows that the cerebellum, which is engaged through repetitive exercise like riding a bike, embeds that learning into the neurological system.”

If we can learn to ride a bike through repetitive activity, why not spelling or multiplication tables? It turns out that doing things like tossing a ball while learning math or dramatically acting out a social studies assignment can actually help students learn more effectively, according to Dickinson.

Dickinson encourages parents and educators to remember, “There is an incredibly important connection between the mind, body, emotions and spirit. When you affect one, you affect the whole system for better or for worse.”

Tera Schreiber and her husband try to give their children ample opportunity to move and play, for everyone’s sanity. She hopes it makes them smarter as a bonus.


The American Association for the Child’s Right to Play

New Horizons for Learning

What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot, Ph.D.


Originally published in the October, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

Share this article with your friends!

Leave a Comment