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Why Physical Activity Is So Crucial for Preschoolers

Growth in strength, coordination, and agility are only part of the picture.

Children are bundles of seemingly endless energy. They love to dance, skip and run a lot. Thanks to the growth in their muscles, children usually can pedal a bike, climb a small tree, and bounce and catch a ball. But, this menu of skills isn’t merely devoted to getting children ready for sports someday in the future. Physical activity and exercise of any kind are especially important to the rapidly developing preschooler brain.

Physical activity encourages the growth of connections between the brain cells responsible for paying attention and memory, which in turn increases the capacity for learning and problem-solving (which is why keeping a child in from recess as punishment for misbehavior is exactly the wrong approach because of this particular effect on the brain). Activities that require keeping one’s balance or using one’s arms or feet in coordination (swinging, jumping rope) are especially beneficial to helping the child develop attentional focus, alertness and spatial awareness (where the body is in space in relation to other people or objects). Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, M.D., has called such activity “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Active physical exertion helps stabilize the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response in children who are under stress, either momentarily or over longer periods of time. Simply put, physical activity can act as insulation against the negative effects of stress on the body and mind, particularly in the young.

Here are some ways parents can support helpful physical activity in their preschooler’s day.

  • Start with yourself. Set an example by being physically active, personally and with your child, and talking about how it helps you feel and think better.
  • Encourage your child to pick activities that she finds fun, and then suggest activities that add something to it. For example, if your child enjoys running, ask her whether she’d like to kick a soccer or tennis ball while she runs. This can help children see how a supplemental activity adds to the fun as well as the ‘burn.’
  • Whenever possible walk or ride (a bike or scooter, while wearing a helmet, of course) when you need to get somewhere nearby. Also, leave extra time to stop and smell the roses with your child. These simple times together end all too soon.
  • Give children the space, tools and time to be physically active themselves and figure out what’s fun to master on their own. “I want to do it myself” is the battle cry of autonomy in these years and should be respected.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (