Why movement is important for the brain

Reading Readiness Programme
April 15, 2021
Pre-Reading and Spelling skills
May 19, 2021

By Dr Melodie de Jager.

International research has shown an increase in difficulties with behaviour and learning. These difficulties seem to be associated with poor physical development. But how is it possible when physical development is a natural consequence of play?

Playing on a device

The prevalence of electronic games and TV are contributing factors to the decrease in physical play and an increase in electronic play. Watching movies and playing games on mobile devices keep children playing for hours, but sitting motionless in front of a screen or hunched over a phone is no substitute for whole body play. Sitting still for hours is no substitute for movement in young children to exercise muscles, develop coordination, burn calories, stimulate the vestibular system and most importantly to develop the brain.

Massage and movement are the two ways this vital connection between the vestibular system and the brain is stimulated. Although playing on a device does count as play and has its advantages, a well-developed body contributes to impulse control, stamina, a confident posture, stable emotions, an alert mind and therefore to academic performance and success.

Children need enough screen time to be relevant in 2021, but they also need enough time to benefit from movement and multi-sensory play.

The vestibular system is the place in the body where gravity meets cognition.

Movement starts with babies

Development starts with babies when they move in the womb. After birth babies need to spend time on their stomachs, reaching, rolling and pushing up with their arms to:

  • defy gravity
  • develop their muscles in the right sequence: cephalo-caudal and proximal-distal.

Older children need to jump, climb, stretch, hang, swing, push and pull to defy gravity and develop muscle tone.

A lack of movement and barriers to learning

A lack of movement and muscle tone is associated with a lack of attention to concentrate on a task until the task is complete. A child with low muscle tone tends to have poor fine motor coordination and to compensate for the lack of a stable posture struggle to control a pen, write on the computer and therefore experience difficulty with learning to write and express their knowledge.

A lack of movement in young children gives rise to poor laterality and difficulty with midline crossing. This makes it challenging for the child to distinguish left from right, or space words on a line across the page and follow words across a page – the reason why they easily lose their place when reading.

Play helps children learn about life

The choices and decisions children make while playing teach them about consequences. They learn about fairness and cheating and have to cope with disappointment when plans don’t work or when someone else wins. Through gross motor make-believe games, they have a natural outlet for their emotions, expressing feelings that they might not be able to verbalise. As they increase their experience they not only become stronger, more agile and independent, but they learn to apply their knowledge to new situations. Through play children grow in confidence and in the ability to find solutions to problems. As they acquire these essential skills, they prepare themselves for adulthood.

Our children need more anti-gravity movement.

Movement and equipment

Gross motor equipment, also called a jungle gym, invites continuous motor activity.  It can be made of steel, wood or plastic, but steel allows for a better grip and does not splinter. It provides opportunities for climbing, hanging, swinging, creeping, balancing, pushing and pulling. Jungle gyms offer swings, static ladders and moving ropes and nets for climbing, tyres or drums to crawl through, suspended beams or rope bridges for balancing, monkey bars for hanging and a fireman’s pole and slide for sliding.

Jungle gyms develop the whole child

Movement is the foundation for physical emotional, social and mental development, and continue to progress naturally from one level to the next when a child is allowed to move in many different ways. With more people living in smaller spaces the need for play areas with equipment that challenge the children to interact and explore, are increasing.

  • Physical development – by improving body awareness, spatial orientation, moving with coordination and control, eye-hand and eye-foot coordination; overall gross muscle development; muscle tone, balance while on static and moving equipment; shoulder girdle stability, core stability, laterality, crossing the midline, a sense of direction and position in space, motor planning, posture, the stimulation of oxygen to the brain for better concentration, memory and learning.

International research has indicated there is an increase in obesity amongst young children who spend less time playing on gross motor equipment.

  • Emotional development – movement develops a sense of self, a sense of daring and confidence, enjoyment, fun, love of life, the release of excess energy, less stress and positive self-expression.
  • Social development – gross motor equipment is the perfect place to learn life skills such as confidence, self-esteem, cooperation, sharing, turn-taking, conflict resolution, leadership skills, tolerance, prioritizing and role play.
  • Intellectual development – gross motor equipment surrounds children with a variety of colours, sizes and shapes, which help them to experience these abstract concepts. It stimulates imagination and problem solving as the equipment is open to the child’s interpretation. Gross motor equipment prompts logical thinking to compare, classify, and sequence movement activities, and encourage experimentation and risk-taking, communication skills, attention regulation and persistence.

Gross motor equipment stimulates creative problem solving while experiencing math concepts (first, last, up and down, in and out; to determine depth and heights and to be aware of left and right). Gross motor equipment enables children to realize that they can overcome difficulties in a fun-filled atmosphere.

Access to gross motor equipment is important

  • Cramped home conditions of many young active children restrict movement and can stunt development
  • Movement is a vital component of play and learning and requires space
  • Development of the body and the brain are inseparable
  • Ample experience in running, climbing, hanging and balancing are necessary if children are to learn to read and write successfully
  • The start of a good pencil grip is made while hanging from the monkey bars or climbing up a ladder or a net
  • ALL school related skills are built on the development of gross motor skills and balance
  • Boys and girls need the freedom to be safely adventurous
  • Every scientific and mathematical concept is first experienced on the gross motor equipment and then understood in a book or on a screen.

A jungle gym and gross motor equipment are the ideal way of developing the whole child joyfully and playfully.

With enough time climbing, swinging and sliding behaving inside the classroom becomes much easier.


De Jager, M. & Victor, L. 2017. PLAY LEARN KNOW. Welgemoed: Metz press.


Lost your password?