Anyone who’s spent any time with children knows they need lots of activity. However, a recent study published in “Pediatrics,” the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, indicates that active time is critical to brain development, leading to better thinking skills in children. One of the study’s main findings shows that children ages 7 to 9 who have at least 70 minutes of active time a day have improved thinking skills, particularly in multitasking.

The study highlights the direct correlation between the quality and duration of activity a child receives throughout the day and how well that child performs in school. Most schooltime physical education classes don’t meet the 70 minutes of minimum active time suggested in the study, which can leave many parents wondering, “How much activity is enough?,”  “What, exactly, does ‘active’ mean?” and “How can my child get the activity he or she needs?”

Unstructured activity

Bri Kurcsak, occupational therapist with Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Center, confirmed that active time is essential for a child’s growth and development.

“There needs to be a balance between structured activity and unstructured activity,” Kurscsak said. “Sometimes what they get at school isn’t enough, so you need to make sure they have some unstructured playtime when they get home.”

Kurcsak said the best time for unstructured activity is as soon as children get home from school.

“You need to give them a break from following directions all day,” she explained. “They need to move and burn off some of that energy they’ve stored up from sitting most of the day. Then, have your children follow a structured evening schedule.”

Structured activity

However, unstructured playtime is not always enough. Kurcsak explained that some structured activity is good, especially with parents guiding the way.

“Kids will tend to do things that are in their comfort zone,” said Kurcsak. “If something is too challenging, or physically too hard, they’ll avoid the activity. This is where children can be developmentally delayed from a motor standpoint. Structured activity encourages children to explore things they wouldn’t normally initiate on their own.”

Extracurricular activities

Kurcsak highlighted the importance of activities outside of school. “It doesn’t have to be sports,” she said. “Just something with a social engagement component that allows children to move and learn, and something that is fun for them.”

If a child is involved in a social activity, they will learn things they may not have learned on their own. Interacting with other children is essential to growth and development.

An activity spectrum

According to Kurcsak, children fall on a spectrum of how much physical activity interests them. Some children like to run, jump and swing from the monkey bars. These children want to burn off energy.

Other children like to sit and are more timid, and sometimes, “there could be something wrong with the strength and endurance, or their balance could be off,” said Kurcsak. She recommends figuring out why your child isn’t being active. Or, if your child can’t stop moving, you may want to look into that as well.

Overall, Kurscak recommends balance. “Balance is the key,” she said. “You always have to consider the age of your child. Some will work better with structured playtime and some are too young. Find a balance that works for your child.”