How does movement build a child’s brain?

(Extracted from the website https://extension.psu.edu/movement-builds-a-childs-brain, by Jacqueline Amor-Zitzelberger.

Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) focuses on the role of movement in helping brain development and learning.  Just how does movement build brain structure?

At birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion brain cells, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way, and almost all the brain will ever have. In the brain, nerve cells called neurons are present at birth and eventually form trillions of connections over the first years of life depending on the child’s life experiences. These neural connections start to send messages to each other to meet the requirements of the body and brain. Compare this to posting messages to friends on Facebook or Instagram. If you send a message to 500 friends, and each of those friends, in turn, send or forward that message to another 500 friends, and so on, the messages or signals expand exponentially.

This messaging is important for the brain-body connection. The ability of the brain to develop and maintain neural connections is based on reflexive movements (before and following birth) and then new movement and play experiences of toddlers and young children. Brain cell connections are lost or pruned away as a result of limited activity or stimulation. “Move it or lose it” is true for both children and adults.

Researchers say that there are “windows of opportunity,” or sensitive periods, in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at two to four months of age, peaking in intensity at eight months. Babies begin to take much more notice of the world during this period. If a child misses this opportunity, that does not mean that the child will be impaired, but her brain may not develop circuitry to its full potential, or optimal development, in that area. The nervous system does not even mature until somewhere between the ages of 15 to 25, so during this time, parents and teachers can continue to provide a variety of active play opportunities through those years to promote further brain growth.

Brain development does not stop after early childhood, but the window narrows, making it harder for adults to learn skills they missed during childhood.  Ultimately, our adult capabilities are determined by childhood activities.

Children need to move to activate the brain. And the brain responds in full force allowing them to move in a variety of ways including crossing the mid-lines. Songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and “Hokey Pokey” are examples of crossing the midlines of the body. Why are these action songs and the mid-line important for brain development? The motions to the songs encourage children to cross all three body mid-lines, reaching the top to bottom, left to right, and front to back. These physical movements demand coordination from both the left and right sides of the brain. This strengthens the tissues called the corpus callosum that divides the two sides of the brain that is important for communication from one side of the brain to the other. These movements help to develop and strengthen neural pathways laying the foundation for further development in language, literacy, and math skills.

Crossing mid-lines can help stimulate brain activity in adults too. Try this activity. Extend one arm straight in front of you. It doesn’t matter which one. Point your index finger, and draw a large, imaginary figure 8 lying on its side, crossing left to right in front of your body. Run your finger along this imaginary figure several times. Now switch to the opposite arm. It may be harder since it is probably your non-dominate arm. Trace the same large figure 8 several times. This activity stimulates both sides of your brain and refreshes your thinking process. It might help you get through those long afternoon workdays.

There is one easy way that you can boost your child’s brainpower through movement activities. Turn on your children’s (or your) favourite music and have a dance party. You’ll have so much fun that no one will realize that you’re building your child’s brain!

 

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