One of the hardest aspects of school for young children is in some ways the simplest: sitting still. Recess is the time worn antidote to such restlessness. But regular physical exercise is also generally important to academic performance—and not just for young students. It can help boost various types of cognition in kids into the teen years and probably beyond (see “Smart Jocks: Sports Helps Kids' Classroom Performance,” by Steve Ayan, Scientific American Mind, September/October 2010).
A social and emotional learning program called MindUP conceived by actor Goldie Hawn incorporates exercise right into the classroom. Its purpose is slightly different than improving fitness, however. It is primarily geared toward building a child’s appreciation of the mind-body relationship. Through exercise, kids are taught to monitor signals from their bodies—their breathing, heart rate, sweating, pain and other sensations—to help them connect these signals with how they are feeling. Some bodily sensations, after all, are associated with stress. By being in touch with their bodies through “mindful movement,” children may gain more control over their physical and emotional responses. Mindful movement is thus thought to improve students’ self-regulation, an important skill for learning and for life.
And, of course, kids seem to love moving around, touching elbow to knee, rubbing their bellies while patting their heads, and doing jumping jacks. That emotional reward, signaled by the neurotransmitter dopamine, also stimulates brain areas critical to thinking. In other words, happy kids may indeed learn better. (For more on social and emotional learning, see my feature article “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control” in the September/October Scientific American Mind. Also: Listen to me discuss the topic on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook: "Reading, Writing and Character.")
In the video below, Marianne Prins of Sir William Van Horne Elementary in Vancouver leads her third graders in a series of physical exercises designed to tune up their minds.