The brain-building benefits of physical literacy

We all know that children’s experiences in the early years, before age six, are important to their overall mental, physical, social and emotional development. But did you know that fully 90 percent of our brain is developed by the age of five?

The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines tell us that young children need at least 180 minutes of active play every day and that physical literacy—developing fundamental movement skills, confidence, and love of movement—provides the foundation children need to develop healthy, active lifestyles. 


Related read: No stroller potatoes! Why babies need active play, every day


Yet, surprisingly little research has been done on the connections between early brain development, active play, and physical literacy during this critical period in children’s development. 

Over the past two years, the Early Years Physical Literacy Team has been exploring the impact of physical literacy programming on young children in childcare settings thanks to funding from Active for Life, B2ten, and Government of Canada’s Social Development Partnerships Program – Children and Families.

Working with 100 educators in 30 childcare centres in Alberta and B.C., we have been studying how providing early childhood educators with physical literacy training and resources to enhance active play affects the more than 600 children in their care.

What did we learn? As you might expect, when children are provided more opportunities for active play, they become more motivated, confident, and competent to move. In addition to that, active play and physical literacy every day helps to build better brains.

How? It all comes back to four key concepts that are part of the Core Story about how the brain develops in early childhood:

  • Serve and return
  • Building a brain is like building a house
  • Air traffic control
  • Resilience

1. “Serve and return”

Relationships are the core of healthy brain development. The interactions between children and adult caregivers teach young children about our world. A tennis match begins with a serve that the other player returns. Likewise, meaningful connections between children and their caregivers are made through many back-and-forth interactions—“serve and return.” Play is one of the best ways to support serve and return between adults and children.

One of the findings of our study is that educators report feeling more strongly connected with the children in their care after implementing physical literacy activities, both in the playroom and outside.

Why? Encouraging active play leads educators to become more engaged with the children and play with them more frequently. As a result, educators find themselves spending less time managing behaviours and saying “no,” and more time enjoying activities with the children. Both educators and children feel calmer and more productive, and experience days filled with joy and laughter.

2. Building a brain is like building a house

When you build a house, you begin by laying a solid foundation. Likewise, healthy brain development depends on a solid foundation of stable relationships, serve and return interactions, and positive experiences, which set the trajectory for the rest of a child’s life.

A house has four walls which, in this metaphor, stand for the four main areas of development: cognitive, social, emotional, and physical. Each of these four walls needs to be well-built, so that the child’s brain can withstand adversity over their lifetime.

Our study is finding that physical literacy provides benefits in all four areas of development. 

Cognitive benefits of physical literacy:

  • More able to focus and pay attention
  • Less distracted
  • Increased persistence on task
  • More divergent thinking and problem solving
  • Increased ability to plan and carry out tasks

Physical benefits of physical literacy:

  • Better balance
  • Confident locomotion
  • Improvements in coordination

Social benefits of physical literacy:

  • More cooperative play
  • More imaginative and creative play
  • Able to make and keep friends
  • Improved ability to share and work together

Emotional benefits of physical literacy:

  • Better emotional self-regulation
  • Better inhibitory control
  • Calmer transitions
  • Improved overall behaviour

Air traffic control

To be successful in school, at work, and in life, we need to plan ahead, focus our attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks. At a busy airport, pilots and passengers depend on air traffic controllers to see the big picture and prioritize who goes next. In our brains, executive function and self-regulation play a similar role to help us in our daily lives. 

These core capabilities are found in the pre-frontal cortex (behind our forehead), the decision-making part of our brain. This part of the brain starts to develop in the first couple of years of life but continues to develop well into our mid- to late twenties.

In our study, educators are finding that increasing the amount of active play children experienced every day results in noticeable improvements in children’s abilities to follow instructions, be patient and wait their turn, and make and alter plans during play. 

Along with these increased executive function skills, educators report that children are more able to regulate their emotions. This leads to fewer challenging behaviours during the day.

Resilience

Resilience is a balance between positive support and negative experiences. As much as we would wish otherwise, no child can be completely shielded from negative experiences. When children encounter challenges while being supported by caring adults, they learn how to overcome adversity, build coping strategies, and become more resilient.

Children in the study are given opportunities to test their boundaries during active outdoor play with loose parts or in natural playgrounds. They learn how far to push themselves and to set their own comfort boundaries while being supported by their educators. 

Educators report that the children demonstrate increased confidence and competence in moving actively alone and with others. The children learn that they don’t always succeed, and when this happens, they discover they can change their plans and try again—a recipe for resilience.


Related read: 5 expert tips to help children build resilience


Conclusion

The results of this study are showing that active play every day not only develops children’s physical literacy, but also improves children’s relationships with educators and friends, their ability to regulate emotions and focus on tasks, and provides more opportunities to test their limits and build resilience under the watchful eyes of educators.

For more information on the proof of concept study, or to learn what your childcare centre can do to enhance our physical literacy programming for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers,  visit activeforlife.com/ece.

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