Just like a muscle, the brain can lose flexibility and capacity if we don?t use it. In an earlier blog post, Wired for Learning: Use it or Lose It, I shared that our brains prune the connections that are not used for a period of time. One way to reduce this pruning in our children is to engage them in cognitive activities that involve language interactions and problem-solving opportunities.
Recent research indicates that another way to boost mental capacity is through physical activity. We know that aerobic exercise, like walking, running or jumping, improves cardiovascular health by increasing the heart rate. We also know that exercise helps us deal with stress. It is only recently that scientists have linked exercise to improved academic performance.
Studies over the last decade link physical fitness to improved test scores, and indicate that increased physical activity leads to improved memory, enhanced learning, better grades, higher scores on standardized tests, and healthier attitudes. Physical activity impacts the brain in multiple and various ways. When the heart beats faster it pumps more oxygen to the brain, and causes the body to release many different hormones that help provide a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells. This enhanced cell growth stimulates the formation of new connections between brain cells in important cortical areas of the brain. In a study out of UCLA, researchers found that physical activity not only increased growth factors in the brain, but made it easier for the brain to grow new neural connections.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education offers some suggestions that we can use with our infants, toddlers or preschoolers to keep them physically active and power up their brains. The Primrose Schools Thumbs Up! Physical Activity and Outdoor Play program derives its key components from these principles.
Infants: Interact with infants in a way that encourages them to explore their environments.
- Hang colorful, moving mobiles over the crib that they can reach for and grasp or kick with their feet. Be careful that they do not hang so low that your baby can pull it down or get tangled.
- Play games that encourage infants to “come and get” toys within crawling or reaching distance.
- Give infants opportunities to play with large blocks, stacking toys, nesting cups, textured balls and squeeze toys. Make sure that none of the items can be swallowed, and that they don’t have sharp points or edges.
Toddlers: As toddlers begin to explore and master the movements of their own bodies, provide them with a variety of movement activities that introduce basic gross and fine motor skills.
- Provide balls of different sizes and shapes that they can strike, kick, catch and bounce.
- Encourage them to walk and run in open areas to perfect their balance. They may fall, but they will pick themselves back up again. This is part of the learning process.
- Play upbeat children’s music to encourage them to move and dance.
- Give toddlers a variety of manipulatives (objects or materials that can be touched or moved) such as boxes, building blocks, rings and large puzzles that they can use to create three-dimensional structures.
- Help toddlers develop their fine-motor skills by encouraging them to scribble and draw with crayons or manipulate play-dough into different shapes.
Preschoolers: Encourage a variety of movement experiences that require eye-body coordination.
- Provide balls for rolling, throwing, catching, striking or kicking.
- Introduce activities that elevate the heart rate, such as dancing, biking, jumping rope, swimming and brisk walking.
- Provide outdoor play equipment that allows them to strengthen their muscles.
- Create opportunities to draw, play musical instruments and complete puzzles to further develop fine-motor muscles.
Remember that adults also need to strengthen neural connections through exercise. Think of ways that your family can exercise together. Walking is especially good for you, because it increases the circulation of oxygen in your body. As you walk, you effectively oxygenate your brain. Double the benefits by conversing with your child about his day or admiring the sights along the way!