How exercise increases your child’s attention span

Research suggests that rather than being a distraction, sport and any physical activity can help increase a child’s attention span. Child looks into these studies
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Paying attention for a long period of time is not a natural skill. Most people find it hard to focus on one thing for more than 20 minutes; some studies suggest that the average attention span for adults is decreasing.

Being able to pay attention increases your ability to learn new information, to understand a situation accurately and to communicate effectively with others. These are all essential parts of adult life, so it makes sense to teach children how to pay attention.

But as any parent with a fidgeting child understands, telling them to sit still and listen isn’t enough. In fact, encouraging them to sit still may actually have the opposite effect.

Research suggests that your child’s attention span can actually increase through physical activity and play.

In a 2003 survey of 500 school teachers, 90 per cent believed that physically active children were better at paying attention. In their experience, children who played actively and who did more exercise were better able to sit still and listen than children who spent more time being sedentary.

You might find it easier to deal with a child who sits down most of the time than with one who is constantly on the move, but teachers suggest that the inactive child will find it harder to learn.

When you are trying to focus on a particular task, you use an area of your brain known as the prefrontal cortex. This is not directly involved in learning a new skill or remembering information. Instead, your prefrontal cortex has the job of stopping you getting distracted. It’s the part of the brain that helps you keep your temper when someone annoys you.

In the morning, when your alarm goes off and you would rather stay in bed, it’s your prefrontal cortex that prioritises the inner voice saying: “You have to go to work”. It’s this bit of your brain that controls impulses; when you want to check your social media but instead you get on with your work, that’s your prefrontal cortex in action.

When children pay attention, they are using exactly the same part of their brain. This has been shown on brain scans. If a child in an MRI scanner is asked to do a task that involves ignoring distractions, their prefrontal cortex shows increased activity. So it’s clear that developing this part of the brain will help your child to pay attention.

There are psychological benefits to exercise and play too

A 2014 study had found that giving children a break from a task and getting them to do 15 minutes of moderate physical activity such as jogging or dribbling and passing a ball increased their ability to concentrate. And a team from the University of Georgia discovered that giving normally inactive children a programme of regular exercise increased the activity in their prefrontal cortex.

Being physically active is not just a workout for the body; it also increases the function of this part of your brain. And the more you use this part of your brain, the more it forms connections and increases in size. Exercising makes your brain physically different in ways that improve your ability to stay focused and pay attention.

There are psychological benefits to exercise and play too. Children who play physically active games with others rather than sitting alone and occupying themselves are more able to develop good social skills, including being able to listen to others and to think before they act.

Experiments with animals have found that if young rats are not able to play, they grow into adults that cannot control their aggressive impulses. Psychologists believe that a similar process happens with children: physically active play such as chase games or pretend fighting helps to develop essential skills for adulthood.

If your child is able to pay attention, they will learn information more quickly and remember it more accurately. This is obviously an advantage at school, so it makes sense to help your child develop their attention skills. But rather than encouraging them to sit quietly all the time, it’s better for them to do physical activities and to play with others.

This develops the part of their brain that provides impulse control; growing this area of their brain through physical activity will make them more able to concentrate and less likely to be distracted.

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