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Did you know that babies and children love to learn? It comes naturally to them. If you don’t believe it, try taking over buttoning the jacket of a young preschooler who is engrossed in doing the buttoning herself. She will tell you in no uncertain terms: “I’ll do it!” Learning can and should be a natural and joyful experience, and it very often it is.

One thing that is needed for a child to be able to learn easily and well is that she must feel safe and secure. If there is anything in the environment that would cause someone to feel frightened or at risk, the brain will put its priority on that issue. Because of the way the brain is set up, safety is the first priority. If the environment is not felt to be safe, for any reason, energy is taken away from the higher centers of the brain, where school-related learning would occur, and put into survival mode.

Stress and Learning

Prolonged, ongoing stress can also damage parts of the brain that are needed for memory and learning. This is important for all of us who are concerned with keeping our memories and thinking sharp throughout our lives. So for our own sakes, as well as for our children, it is important to find ways to keep the effects of stress to a minimum. A stressful environment will make it difficult for children to be able to focus well enough to learn.

Exercise and the Brain

One excellent way to reduce stress is through exercise. There are many ways that exercise helps to reduce stress in the body and mind. Exercise measurably reduces anxiety and depression. It calms the body, and breaks up the stress-feedback loop to the brain. It increases the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, and it promotes the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, all of which are needed for the brain to function as it should.  So reducing stress, for yourself or your kids, can be as easy as taking a walk or getting some sensible exercise.

Movement, Exercise and Learning

These ideas lead to perhaps the most important and exciting discoveries of the past few decades. Movement and exercise promote all kinds of learning and, in fact, are vital for learning.

All the way back in 1945, a psychologist named Donald Hebb, who was doing research on learning by working with rats in a laboratory, brought some of those rats home in the evening, for his children to play with. As strange as that may sound today, it led to a very important discovery. Dr. Hebb found that the rats who spent evenings playing with his children excelled in learning tests, compared with the rats who stayed in a cage all night.

What does this tell us? Once again, it tells us that playing and interacting are very important parts of learning, growth, and development. Children running around a playground are not just taking a break from class. They are not just reducing their level of stress. Their joyful physical activity is promoting all the brain functions which are needed for learning to occur.

Interesting research findings

Carla Hannaford cites a study in which 500 Canadian children who spent an extra hour or more each day in gym class, performed notably better on exams than less active children (Smart Moves, p. 101). And John Ratey cites 2001 studies by the California Dept of Education showing that students with higher fitness levels also had higher test scores (Spark, p. 22). In fact, a panel of researchers doing a review of over 850 studies, concluded that exercise has a positive effect on memory, concentration and behavior. They recommended that all children participate in at least one hour of physical activity each day (Spark, p. 22).

John Ratey, in his book Spark, also tell the incredible story of Naperville, IL, where a rigorous, but compassionate and sensible fitness program was set up, with amazing results. The Naperville district students consistently ranked in the top ten of the state’s school districts, even though less money was spent per pupil in Naperville. Furthermore, the Naperville students ranked #1 in the world on the science section of the TIMSS test.

The TIMSS test is Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies, which compares math and science ability among students in different countries across the globe. When one considers how often we hear the lament that the Japanese and other students are scoring higher in these areas than the U.S. students, one can see how important this is. Typically, only 7% of U.S. students score in the top tier on this test.

Win-Win

What this, and other research, is telling us is that exercise and learning go hand in hand. It is vital for students to get exercise during the school day.

Beyond this, it tells us something very interesting, and that is that the solutions to many problems are counter-intuitive. In other words, many times the solution is the opposite of what you might expect it to be. One might imagine that by having children and teens spend more time in the classroom, and less time running around playing, that their learning and test scores will go up. This research tells us the opposite. By spending more time outdoors or in gym, their scores are more likely to go up AND they will be happier and less frustrated as well. Sounds like a win-win solution for everyone.

Sources

Hannaford, Carla, Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head(1995) Alexander, NC: Grand Ocean Publishers.

Ratey, John J., Spark The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008) New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.