The Paradox of Sitting Still in Preschool

Sometimes, when people picture what learning looks like, they imagine perfectly quiet children in perfectly arranged rows, sitting perfectly still.

Sounds perfect, right?

But research tells us that’s not always what learning looks like. Especially when it comes to young children

Movement is an important part of the learning process for two main reasons.

ONE: Movement engages more of the brain in the learning process. In order to incorporate more of the body, more of the brain must “light up”, which in turn also creates more feedback. By engaging more of the brain and creating more connections, movement enhances learning and memory retention.

TWO: Movement helps the brain to work more optimally, by generating more oxygen and blood flow to the brain, along with chemicals that promote focus, motivation, memory, and mood.

It’s fascinating to me that the first sensory systems to mature are those governing motor activity (cerebellum) and spatial orientation (vestibular). These systems work together to gather and process information, helping us plan our movements and direct our attention. We are literally wired early on to learn by moving and interacting with our environment. (source)

Additionally, we know that educating children goes beyond the brain. It is more than educating a “disembodied mind”, as developmental theorist William Crain would say. Children are building cognitive skills, but also fine motor skills, large motor skills, language skill, social skills, and many more. These skills are not learned effectively when children sit still. They need to move, interact, handle things, and actively engage with their environment.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead warned,

I lay it down as an educational axiom that in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies.”

Nowhere is this truer than in the early childhood classroom. Overlooking a child’s need to use their bodies in order to learn will not only manufacture needless behavior issues but also get in the way of real growth.

Pediatric occupational therapist and author Angela Hanscom posits that current the trends showing increases in sensory and motor issues stem in part from a reduction of movement in children’s lives today. According to her research, many aspects of physical development (like balance, spatial awareness, proprioception, fine motor control, muscle tone and strength) is on the decline in children.

The irony is, that movement actually makes it easier to sit still and pay attention.

Work by Dr. Olga Jarrett of Georgia State University demonstrated that students who were given time for movement (through a recess break) were “less fidgety and more on task”, with the biggest effects observed in those with hyperactivity.

Neuropsychiatry expert Dr. John Ratey, of Harvard Medical School, explained to CNN: “When you move, you stimulate all the nerve cells that we use to think with, and when you stimulate those nerve cells, it gets them ready to do stuff.

When you exercise, you turn on the attention systems, so that means you’re (paying) better attention, you’re able to deal with more frustration, you’re able to stay with it longer. You’re able to manipulate information by turning … on the front part of our brain to make it work better, and that’s really key and important in terms of taking in information as well as performing with it.”

This link between movement and learning isn’t simply a short-term cause and effect relationship. Sitting up in a chair, holding a pencil, turning the pages of a book —so many of the skills we ultimately associate with upper-level learning— require a strong foundation of physical strength and development. Core muscle strength, arm stability, fine motor precision and endurance, vestibular development. These abilities are not built by sitting still. They are built through movement.

It seems to run against reason, but the reality is that sitting still and writing is not caused by time accrued early on, sitting still and writing. It is actually the end result of lots and lots of movement.

School preparation isn’t simply the miniaturization of sedentary schooling. It doesn’t look like tiny children sitting in tiny rows writing on tiny papers. Preparing children to succeed in school looks like active children running, climbing, dancing, squeezing, squishing, grabbing, holding, skipping, rolling, and swinging through childhood. Those children will have more fully developed brains and more fully developed bodies, fully ready to continue learning.

Young children must move to learn today, and they must move to prepare their bodies to learn in the future.

It’s one more reason why play is not just cute.

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