Hemby Children's Hospital

Kids need active time for better brains

Study shows that 70 minutes a day leads to improved thinking, school performance

child play learning at a tableKids need lots of activities. Just ask anyone who’s spent any time with children. Being active does more than just make the body stronger and healthy, according to researchers.

A 2014 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 school physical education classes don’t meet the 70 minutes of minimum active time suggested in the study. This 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, a Novant Health occupational therapist at Novant Health 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,” Kurcsak 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 right after 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

Children fall on a spectrum of how much physical activity interests them, according to Kurcsak. 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 their 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, Kurcsak said balance is key. “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.”