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Children’s Need for Movement

Physical activity improves physical and mental well-being at any age.

Key points

  • Including physical activity in the school day improves children's ability to concentrate and learn.
  • The pandemic lockdowns and social isolation have restricted physical activity, with resultant impacts on physical and mental well-being.
  • Active attention to increasing physical activity, especially outdoors, can help reverse these negative trends.
Olyua Kobruseva/Pexels
Source: Olyua Kobruseva/Pexels

Most of us are acutely aware of our need for physical exercise. We hear it from all kinds of sources, ranging from our physicians at our annual checkups to commercials on television touting the latest exercise equipment or work-out membership. And anyone who has incorporated regular activity in their lives, whether a sport or exercise, is aware of the positive effects on how you feel. In addition to the physical benefits, physical activity, especially that done outdoors, can improve your mood, your ability to concentrate, and reduce stress.

Physical activity and the pandemic

We tend to think of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the impact of the virus, but we are learning that many of the negative consequences, especially the social, emotional, and psychological consequences, are actually the result of the policy responses to the pandemic.

The two most notable policies have been related to “lockdowns” and mask use. One of the challenges of these policies has been a focus on a single outcome: spread of the virus. We are now learning, however, about unintended consequences in these other areas, and the consequences could actually have been predicted from what we knew about ourselves from other areas of study. For example, we have learned a great deal about the importance of physical activity for children’s development (Luca, Federico, Bruno, Marta, & Giuseppe, 2022). The opportunity for physically active breaks during the school day, whether indoors or outside, improve motivation, learning outcomes, and social well-being. Outdoor breaks are particularly helpful and have been found to improve children’s ability to stay on task in the classroom. Studies such as these have revealed the importance of movement for academic achievement.

As adults, we tend to think in terms of needing time to concentrate when we want to do cognitive tasks. Young children do not have the ability to focus their attention for extended periods of time for cognitive tasks. They are also developing in all the domains of their lives, including cognition, emotion, movement, feeling, and so on, and they need engagement and stimulation in each of these domains for healthy development. When babies learn to walk, it requires intense concentration and at first it looks like a “controlled fall” rather than walking. But a few months later, they are walking and running around with ease. When those same children have their growth spurt at puberty, we describe them as “gangly.” As with the toddler, they have to learn where their new, larger body is in space and what muscle movements do to their location in space. Then, before long, they are back to being a star basketball player or figure skater.

Learning about space and our bodies’ location in it

There is a learning process whenever we move in a new way or in a new environment. This is called kinesthetic learning: Where is our body in space and how is it moving? To do this, we have to experience our own movement and sensations in the context of an environment. We sense our body movements through sensory nerves in our muscles and joints. The input from our environment is called “kinesthetic stimulation.” And it is not just children. When you take up a new activity or sport, there is sensory motor learning as you learn new skills, reactions, and responses. You notice that at the beginning, you have to think about everything — how to move, when to move, identify the target and know when to act — but as you practice, you notice that you no longer have to focus on the details.

Movement and learning

What we know now is that “kinesthetic stimulation” affects not only motor development and skill building but academic performance. Studies have explored the effects of both systematic exercises and free play time or recess (Bauml, Patton, & Rhea, 2020; Loturco, Montoya, Ferraz, Berbat, & Pereira, 2022). Interestingly, while physical activity improved overall academic achievement, it was particularly effective in improving math skills.

Restoring well-being

Play, motor skill development, movement, outdoor activity. These are essential for our health whether we are preschool-aged, adolescents, or adults. Our response to the pandemic has reduced all of these, with yet-to-be fully understood effects. Lockdowns and social isolation have reduced our overall activity and our relational engagement. The correlated rise in mental health issues suggests the need to restore these aspects of our lives. Ecotherapy, also known as nature therapy, is the practice of being in nature as a way to promote physical and mental health (Chaudhury & Banerjee, 2020). Outdoor activity, then, can be particularly helpful for restoring and maintaining our well-being, no matter what our age. And given what we know about the effects of physical activity on learning in children, perhaps we should invest more in providing opportunities for such activity for our children.


Bauml, M., Patton, M. M., & Rhea, D. (2020). A Qualitative Study of Teachers’ Perceptions of Increased Recess Time on Teaching, Learning, and Behavior. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 34(4), 506-520. doi:10.1080/02568543.2020.1718808

Chaudhury, P., & Banerjee, D. (2020). “Recovering With Nature”: A Review of Ecotherapy and Implications for the COVID-19 Pandemic. Front Public Health, 8, 604440. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2020.604440

Loturco, I., Montoya, N. P., Ferraz, M. B., Berbat, V., & Pereira, L. A. (2022). A Systematic Review of the Effects of Physical Activity on Specific Academic Skills of School Students. Education sciences, 12(2), 134. doi:10.3390/educsci12020134