It’s no secret that physical activity benefits kids’ health. Staying active improves cardiovascular health, strengthens bones, and improves muscle tone. However, most parents don’t realize that exercise can also support executive function, including goal-directed behaviors like planning, time management, and organization.
Building these skills can be hard work, and incorporating physical activity and play makes the process more attainable and enjoyable for kids. This guide outlines what parents need to know about the connection between physical and cognitive function and provides a few fun and easy ways to add more activity to kids’ routines.
How Physical Activity Supports Executive Function Skills
Physical activities can be an effective tool for improving your child’s active listening skills, which are pivotal to strong executive functioning. For example, kids involved in team sports need to listen to their coach and communicate with teammates to have a positive impact on a game and improve their auditory processing skills.
Children’s attention spans can also improve with the right sports. Organized games at recess are a great example. If kids want to play a new game with their peers, like kickball or hopscotch, they have to learn the rules. This requires both social skills to start the conversation but also attentiveness as they learn.
Finally, athletic activities teach children to follow instructions. Take something as simple as going to a public playground. This is an opportunity to discuss the rules of sharing these public spaces safely, like taking turns on the slide. Any interruptions to the task, like wanting to switch activities or waiting for another child to go down the slide, build their cognitive flexibility because they have to adjust to changing situations.
Finally, aerobic exercise is shown to improve general cognitive skills in kids. One study showed that exercise helped children improve in areas like coding, block design, picture completion, and object assembly—all ways to measure cognitive abilities. Another study found that exercise improved self-control in kids, also beneficial to executive function.
Executive Function Exercises to Try With Your Children
Any kind of exercise can prove helpful in improving executive function. As a parent, it’s important to balance skill-building with quality family time and opportunities for kids to develop their independence. Here are some fun suggestions.
1. Try Backyard Games
For kids, physical activity doesn’t have to mean something as mundane as hitting the gym. Try backyard games like hide and seek, jumping rope, and tag as a family. These are all fun ways for families to bond in a safe, familiar environment.
2. Visit the Playground
If you don’t have a lot of space in your backyard, try to find a nearby park with a playground. Activities like climbing on jungle gyms and swinging from monkey bars offer kids new challenges. They may even set a goal to make it from one side of the monkey bars to the other. If other kids are playing, your child has an opportunity to practice cognitive flexibility in response to changes to their environment. Playmates may ask them to join in a new game or draw them away from their current task.
3. Go for a Walk
Physical activity doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as going for a walk in your neighborhood. Because it’s a familiar environment, you can challenge your child to guide your walk back home. This will require them to use their working memory because they have to recall directions in the moment.
4. Encourage Physical Education
Look for opportunities beyond the home to get your child active, like a school-sponsored physical education program or gym classes. Even if phys ed is optional, it’s worth the time because it adds structured physical activity to your child’s school days.
5. Embrace the Benefits of Recess
Recess is another structured physical activity that can fit into the school day. Ask your child about their recess and encourage them to get involved. Many of the backyard games you play at home work just as well on the playground with classmates and friends.
If recess time isn’t available at your child’s school, focus on family activities and extracurriculars to keep them active and engaged.
6. Sign Kids Up for Sports
Team sports can help kids improve executive function and are a great way to meet friends. Encourage your children to try different options to see what they like. Soccer, basketball, and baseball are a few that even younger children can participate in. Even if they’re not the star player from the start, they’ll learn that with persistence—and practice—they’ll improve in time.
Non-competitive activities, like swim lessons or teen yoga classes, also help kids work on their social and executive function skills in a lower stakes environment.