Moving bodies – growing minds
It is worth beginning with a quote from Gill Connell that expresses what we know so well:
‘The most powerful tool for fostering the growth and development of neural connections in your child’s brain is physical movement.’
Why is movement so important?
One compelling reason to get children moving more than our current lifestyle allows, is the fact that movement stimulates the brain to produce important chemicals. One of these is known as ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor’ – BDNF – which has been described as ‘fertiliser for the brain.’ Each time a muscle moves, this miraculous chemical is secreted that not only helps brain cells to grow but also protects our vital neurons (brain cells). This is a reason why movement is widely acknowledged to be crucial to healthy thinking (cognition) and school success.
Movement begins in utero – and is actually assisted by the mother’s own movements. A healthy, active mother helps her child’s developing brain long before the birth. Moms who are obliged to stay quietly in bed for health reasons need to think about what movements they can make in bed without danger to themselves and their developing baby. For example, if your doctor allows it, gentle rolling from side to side in bed is useful, as is gentle, slow rocking forwards and backwards and from side to side in a sitting position.
After birth, movement continues to be absolutely vital. We know that infants raised in institutions where limitations are placed on movement and human contact have many neurological conditions. It isn’t just the lack of loving touch – the absence of enough movement opportunities can also delay or impair brain development.
This is why we don’t advocate the use of baby seats, walkers, swings and too much time strapped into car seats, supermarket trollies and the like. Infants need tummy time and freedom to crawl as much as they want to. Encourage climbing, tumbling, rolling and spinning with toddlers and plenty of outside play with older children.
Perhaps it makes sense to remember that movement is largely processed in the cerebellum, or ‘small brain’ at the base of the larger brain. This is the same area where memory and learning is processed. An underdeveloped cerebellum can affect long- and short term memory, focus and concentration and spatial perception. And because it is also responsible for coordinating our movements, an underfunctioning cerebellum can be seen in children whose movements seem awkward or clumsy; who struggle with gross and fine motor coordination and more.
Diet helps the benefit of movement. The secretion of ‘miracle grow’ BDNF mentioned earlier may be suppressed by diets high in sugar. A low-sugar diet combined with plenty of exercise supports brain development and can help bring about significant improvements in academic skills.
The good news is that we know these days that the brain is not ‘cast in stone’ by a certain age. It remains plastic and can be moulded throughout our lifespans. This ‘brain plasticity’ can be used to benefit children whose brains haven’t developed optimally for whatever reason. Knowing which movements are important for brain growth and health goes a long way towards helping a child overcome earlier handicaps.