In this article about movement activities for children I will look at the benefits of movement for both learning and emotional wellbeing. I’ll give you lots of ideas and resources too. If you’re a parent, teacher or classroom assistant, this is essential reading!
We were designed to move. Originally hunter gatherers, humans moved for a large proportion of the day. Our more sedentary lifestyle is much more recent in our history. Young children move naturally as they play. Older kids are expected to sit still for long periods of time during the school day, and this can have a detrimental impact on their wellbeing.
Movement Vs Exercise
Exercise and movement are two slightly different things. Exercise involves movement, of course. But when I talk about movement I am not necessarily talking about aerobic exercise.
Movement might include (for example):
- Stretching your limbs
- Tapping your toes
- Rocking on a rocking chair
- Self massage
Exercise is known to have huge benefits for both wellbeing and learning. For example, it reduces the body’s stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. You can read more about exercise and mental health in this article.
What Are Movement Activities?
Movement activities are any kind of movement which are a break from traditional seated learning. They are useful both at home and at school. They may be particularly effective in the classroom. As Griffin Occupational Therapy explains, movement regulates alertness levels:
Sitting and learning requires good attention and focus. This can be difficult to sustain for students with sensory differences. Sometimes, their alertness (arousal level) will be too low and they will lose focus. Or, it might be too high, so they can’t pay attention.https://www.griffinot.com/sensory-movement-breaks-tips-for-success/
Why do Children Need Movement Breaks?
The brain can only focus on one mental activity for a few minutes at a time. Movement breaks help the brain and nervous system to regulate themselves so that the brain can re-focus. Movement breaks are necessary because they:
- Prevent your child feeling overwhelmed.
- Reduce stress.
- Enhance mood.
- Reduce disruptive behaviour.
- Help children make sense of the world.
- Help concentration, increase productivity and self-esteem.
- Develop social skills.
Many people think that only children with ADHD or autism need movement breaks. This is untrue. Neurodivergent children do need movement breaks, particularly within the classroom. However, all children benefit from movement breaks. They are a vital ingredient in both successful learning and positive emotional wellbeing.
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7 Powerful Wellbeing and Learning Benefits of Movement Activities for Children
1. Movement Prevents Overwhelm
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a task you have to do? Like your brain just can’t deal with it? Try leaving that activity for a few minutes and doing something completely different… Take a walk outside, do a few stretches maybe. I find this strategy works for me every time. I come back to the task feeling refreshed, with a much more optimistic outlook.
When children feel overwhelmed by a learning task, their bodies and brains respond in ways that can worsen the situation. Engaging in movement activities through movement and play can improve cognitive flexibility, attention, and impulse control, which can all contribute to preventing overwhelm.
Exercise and Brain Development
Exercise also supports the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function, emotional regulation, and decision-making. It stimulates increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain. This contributes to the growth of new neurons and improving connectivity between brain regions.
Movement activities also stimulate the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth and survival of neurons. BDNF has been linked to higher IQ and improved cognitive function and a reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases (like dementia).
2. Reduce Stress
When children experience stress, their brains release stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. The brain triggers a survival response (fight or flight) and the prepares the body to fight the “danger” or run away. It’s amazing to think that sitting still and trying to focus for long periods can trigger this powerful response in children, but it’s true.
When fight or flight is triggered it leads to feelings of overwhelm and anxiety. The child can no longer learn effectively, because their brain is prioritising survival over learning.
What we see is that physical activity can activate the brain’s natural stress response system. It releases endorphins and reduces adrenaline and cortisol. This regulates emotions and decreases overwhelm.
Regular exercise can also improve the brain’s ability to regulate the stress response system, leading to lower stress levels over time. By engaging in physical activity, children can reduce their levels of stress and anxiety, promoting better mental health and well-being.
3. Enhance Mood
Movement has been shown to have a positive impact on children’s mood and emotional well-being. Outdoor play, in particular, has been linked to improved mood and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemicals, which can counteract the effects of stress hormones. Mood-boosting chemicals serotonin and dopamine are also released.
Let’s take a closer look at serotonin and dopamine.
Serotonin plays a crucial role in regulating mood, appetite, and sleep. When children take part in physical activity, their brains release more serotonin. Any motor activity increases production and release of serotonin.
Serotonin works by regulating communication between brain cells, promoting a more balanced and stable mood. It can also help children feel more alert and focused, leading to improved cognitive function.
Higher levels of serotonin are associated with greater feelings of happiness and optimism.
We should note however that the relationship between serotonin and mood is complex. Other factors like genetics, environment, and social support also play a role in mood.
In short, dopamine is a chemical which makes you feel good. It provides a sense of reward, and makes us want to do the thing that led to its release again and again. Exercising and movement increase our dopamine levels.
Regular exercise makes the brain’s dopamine reward system more effective, creating a higher capacity for joy in your child. It leads to higher circulating levels of dopamine, plus a larger number of available dopamine receptors.
4. Reduce Disruptive Behaviour
Movement can have a positive impact on reducing disruptive behavior in children. Exercise has been shown to support the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function, decision-making, and emotional regulation.
This can lead to better self-control and impulse control, reducing disruptive behavior. As you have read above, movement also leads to the release of endorphins, which reduce stress and anxiety, leading to more regulated behavior.
As I have also described above, physical activity can improve sleep quality and quantity. Better sleep contributes to less disruptive behavior during the day.
5. Help Concentration, Increase Productivity and Self Esteem
As already mentioned, movement stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth and survival of neurons. BDNF has been linked to improved cognitive function.
As if that wasn’t enough, movement increases the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine (see section 3) and norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline), which are involved in attention and focus.
The Anna Freud Centre has produced an excellent resource on “brain breaks” – including physical activities. These break up periods of concentration to improve overall focus and alertness.
Regular daytime exercise can also improve sleep quality, leading to a well-rested mind and increased energy levels during the day.
When we set goals and achieve them through exercise, we feel a sense of accomplishment and pride which can boost self-esteem. Similarly, when we move and stretch we may achieve things we never thought we were capable of, expanding our positive view of ourselves. Of course, regular physical activity can also help us feel positive about our physical health and appearance, leading to a more positive self-image and increased self-confidence.
6. Help Us Make Sense of the World
As you know by now, movement leads to the release of a chemical called BDNF, which stimulates growth of new neurons in the brain. BDNF is involved in learning, memory, and neuroplasticity, the brain’s incredible ability to adapt and change in response to new experiences.
When we take breaks, our brains actually get busy processing memories and helping us make sense of what we have just experienced. A 2012 study found that brain breaks allow something called constructive internal reflection, which helps children consolidate memories and plan for the future. This “brain downtime” is also vital for tasks like reading comprehension and developing new ideas.
7. Develop Social Skills
Movement and physical activity can help children develop social skills by providing opportunities for social interaction and communication. Participating in team sports or group exercise classes can teach children how to work together, communicate effectively and resolve conflicts.
Exercise can also provide a shared sense of accomplishment and social connection when done with others.
What Are Sensory Movement Breaks?
Sensory movement breaks are short periods of physical activity that engage the senses and stimulate the nervous system. They differ from regular physical activity in that they are designed to specifically target sensory input, such as balance, coordination, and proprioception (awareness of our bodies in space).
Sensory movement breaks can involve activities such as jumping jacks, yoga poses, or balancing exercises, and are often used to help children regulate their sensory systems and improve attention and focus.
Sensory breaks can be indoor movement activities if you have limited time. If you can though, always get children outside so they can experience the many soothing and regulating effects of nature.
Regular physical activity, on the other hand, encompasses a wider range of activities and is often focused on improving physical fitness and overall health.
By incorporating sensory movement breaks into their daily routines, parents and teachers can support children’s sensory processing and promote more effective learning and behavior.
Creative Movement Activities for Children
Now that you know about the importance of movement activities for children, let’s get going at implementing them!
Here are 10 beneficial and fun activities for children and how to do them:
- Animal movements. Encourage children to move like different animals. You might ask them to crawl like a bear or jump like a kangaroo. The great thing about this game is there is absolutely no right or wrong. Children can express themselves as much or as little as they like. Even older children and teens can gain enjoyment and stress release from using animal movements.
- Freeze dance (also known as musical statues). Play music and instruct your child / children to dance until the music stops, when they must freeze in place. This game is so much fun, especially if adults join in too. It helps teach controlled movement and self-control. Instead of the last person being “out”, the first person to freeze gets to have a go at leading the activity.
- Yoga. Guide children through simple yoga poses, such as downward dog or child’s pose, to give them a sense of calm and increase their flexibility.
- Simon Says. Play a classic game of Simon Says, focusing on encouraging active movements. For example, touching their toes or jumping in place. This is a great game for developing your child’s listening and language skills.
- Balloon volleyball. Use a balloon to play a game of volleyball. You could use something like a jump rope to represent a net, or just manage without! This brilliant movement activity supports children’s developing hand-eye coordination and gross motor skills.
- Follow the leader. Take turns being the leader. Encourage your child or group of children to follow along with different movements, such as jumping jacks or arm circles. It’s the perfect way to encourage gross and fine motor activities whilst helping a child practice following instructions.
- Obstacle course. Set up an outdoor or indoor obstacle course with cones, hula hoops, a jump rope, or other props to encourage children to climb, jump, and crawl. Use whatever playground equipment or random objects you have on hand. For example, use paper plates as “stepping stones”. You are strengthening their physical development as well as giving them all the amazing benefits of movement that I have described above.
- Dancing scarves. Provide children with scarves or pieces of fabric. Encourage them to move them in different ways, such as swirling or tossing them in the air. You are not only giving your child a valuable movement break that will allow them to express themselves. This activity also supports development of their gross and fine motor skills.
- Sensory dance. Play music and encourage children to dance while holding different textured objects, such as a soft pillow or a bumpy ball.
- Mirror dance. Pair children up. Have them take turns being the leader and the follower, mirroring each other’s movements. This is a fun game that is also really helpful for developing empathy, understanding and social connections.
These movement activities for children can be adapted and modified to suit the ages and abilities of the children involved. They can be done both at home and in school.
Further Resources: Movement Activities for Children
- The Singing Walrus on YouTube has many action songs for young kids including this one below. Songs are a great way to give children a quick movement break.
2. FunSensoryPlay.com has a great list of easy indoor movement games you can try.
3. Another fun music YouTube Channel is The Learning Station, and in particular this “brain breaks for kids playlist”.
4. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has produced an article containing excellent movement ideas for older children and teens.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need. Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.