Ok… so we’re finally back to some kind of normal with school (fingers crossed) and the kids are now pretty much running on their usual schedule. With any luck this school year will be a bit more normal (and at least more predictable!) than the last. This week, we look at the number one step you can take to help your children excel as they return to learning – and our recommendation might surprise you!
Our top tip for educational success is…
Exercise! Yes indeed – while we might tend to associate success in the classroom with time spent on studying (and obviously this is important!) there’s no shortage of evidence that proper exercise is a hugely positive factor when it comes to childhood health and academic performance. It’s of course worth pointing out that as a general principle we should all remember that regular physical activity and movement can benefit both the body and brain in numerous ways – but when it comes to kids, there might be even more benefit.
It’s a (sad, in our opinion) fact that kids today spend less time than ever outside being, well, kids. Those of you old enough may remember a time when rain at school break time simply meant getting wet – rather than being kept inside. While there are clearly reasons schools tend to limit children’s options for play and exercise today (health and safety often a major one) this isn’t necessarily the best way forward when it comes to brain health. Studies have indicated, for example, that regular vigorous movement can improve the supply of oxygen to the brain and promote the production of new cells – so, letting kids have that “mad half hour” may actually help them to learn more efficiently afterwards. Exercise and movement also appear to be linked to the concept of neuroplasticity – or creating new connections in the brain, and we all understand that exercise is an excellent way to boost mood and reduce stress throughout the day. All of this can be somewhat concerning when viewed in the context of the recent (forced) shift towards lockdown and e-learning – but a return to school does not necessarily mean the end of the problem.
That’s what PE is for though, isn’t it?
While our children at school do, of course, have the opportunity to participate in physical education classes, it’s no secret that these have also been reduced in frequency and scope over the years. What’s more, PE classes don’t appeal to all children equally – which, critically is not the same as saying that exercise does not appeal to these children. Not all kids will enjoy football or other team-based sports, and some simply hate running – this does not mean that these children can’t enjoy the benefits of exercise both for body and mind, but may mean you, as a parent, need to work a bit harder to create these opportunities.
Research has also shown that children who are generally more averse to physical exercise – and even those who are already leading a sedentary lifestyle and are overweight, can see significant improvements in cognitive ability from the inclusion of regular exercise. Indeed, one 2011 study concluded that physical activity, in general, may prove to be a simple, important method of enhancing aspects of children’s mental functioning that are central to cognitive development. The study authors even recommended that educators should consider implementing “vigorous physical activity” as part of their overall learning programmes.
So what can I do?
Our top tip – try to find a way to make sure your children are active, ideally very active, for at least an hour per day. This might be a simple as enrolling them in a club or activity which suits their preferences if the school football club isn’t exactly their thing – but sometimes might be a bit of work on your part. Nonetheless, the science is clear – getting exercise improves brain fucntion – and that may just reduce the amount of maths homework you need to help with… sounds like a good trade to us!
 Learning Upregulates Neurotrophic Factor. Behavioral Neuroscience. 2019.
The Anti-Depressant effect of Running. Intl Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2005.
Regular Exercise Changes the Brain. Harvard Health Publishing. 2014.
How Exercise Affects Your Brain. Scientific American. 2018.
 Davis, C. L., Tomporowski, P. D., McDowell, J. E., Austin, B. P., Miller, P. H., Yanasak, N. E., Allison, J. D., & Naglieri, J. A. (2011). Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation in overweight children: A randomized, controlled trial. Health Psychology, 30(1), 91–98