Essential Food for the Brain

25 May 2015

There is a shocking truth about Australian children that is unexpected for such a sport crazy country: our children are some of the least active in the world. 84% of school-aged children fail to get one hour of physical activity a day; 75% of children aged two to four spend more than one hour in front of a television or computer daily and about 15% have a screen in their bedroom1.

As well as being essential to physical and emotional health, exercise has a significant role to play in the healthy development of your child’s brain and this affects your child’s ability to learn.

How well the brain develops is very dependent on the kinds of experiences and opportunities a child has from the moment they are born. While good nutrition and nurturing relationships are essential, movement also plays an important role. Dr Daniel Wolpert, a neuroscientist and engineer who studies how the brain controls the body, argues that the brain’s most important job is to learn, refine and control movement, because everything we do is movement based, even thinking2. When movement opportunities are reduced, the brain’s opportunity to learn and function to its potential capacity is considerably hampered.

Parents who make exercise a regular part of their day are more likely to have young children who are also physically active.

To develop effective and efficient brain function, babies and children need to experience lots of movement opportunities – or exercise – particularly in the first years of life when the brain is busy ‘wiring up’ and creating the essential connections that enable them to think at a higher cognitive level when they are older3. Research into school-aged children by leading Canadian neuro-educationalist Professor Adele Diamond clearly shows that children who have excellent motor skills and high levels of cardiovascular fitness do much better at school4, 5, 6, 7. Children who engage in a daily exercise program improve not only in their physical capabilities, attention, concentration, classroom coping skills, social sensitivities and playground behaviour but also in their literacy and numeracy skills8.

How do you encourage children to ‘get active’?

Children look to adults for guidance on many areas of life – including exercise. Research has shown that parents who make exercise a regular part of their day are more likely to have young children who are also physically active9. The trick is to make exercise fun and make it look like you are having fun as well. The sooner you start, the better!


Babies need to move, because even early exploratory movements soon after birth affects how the brain wires itself10.

  • Keep babies unwrapped and out of restrictive containers (like the car seat, pram, bouncer, etc.) for as much time as possible. Of course, car seats are essential when baby is in the car.
  • Keep hands and feet uncovered as much as possible to encourage movement.
  • Tummy time when awake is very important. Tummy time enables those inbuilt, initial exploratory movement patterns to help the baby feel their body moving against the surface of the mat or your own body. This is the first step towards early independent movement.
  • Move your baby’s limbs passively while you sing nursery rhymes or change baby’s nappies. Dance, swing, sway, slowly spin and rock your baby. All these movements help the baby’s brain be familiar with all the motions experienced when they begin to move on their tummy and all fours and then upright for balance.
  • Avoid any screen time at all. Babies and children less than two years of age learn far more from moving and interacting with the world around them

Toddlers & pre-schoolers

Toddlers need lots of opportunities to gain good balance so that later motor skills have a solid foundation on which to function. It’s hard to hop or skip or even sit still in a chair if your balance is poor.

  • Go for walks and encourage your toddler to balance along edges, planks, stepping stones and the like, and to run up and down grassy slopes. Balance needs repeated movement practice to refine. Good balance is essential for automatic control of the body.
  • Put away that computer device and turn off the television.
  • Avoid screen time as much as possible and limit it to a maximum of one hour a day. No time at all is better, but challenging to implement. Screen time is non-moving time. If you do allow your toddler to watch a screen, chose an interactive show such as Playschool so children get up, dance and sing along. Get in there, and dance and sing along with them!
  • Pre-schoolers need to engage in active movement play that finetunes motor skill development. Encourage lots of crossing under the overhead ladder (brachiating), jumping, hopping, marching, skipping, and scooter and bicycle riding. Visit your local park regularly and enjoy the bike paths and playground equipment. If your child is reluctant, try and find an activity that they enjoy, and gradually introduce more activities as success and confidence grows.

Primary school children

Active Healthy Kids Australia1 report that only 19% of Australians aged 5-17 years and 15% of Australians aged 12-17 years meet the recommended Australian physical activity guidelines of accumulating at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day of the week. So how can you encourage your primary schoolers to get active?

  • As for younger age groups, active parents encourage active children, so look for an activity you are happy to do with your children – start with a simple game of catch or cricket in the backyard. Once you all feel more confident, head out for a picnic to a local park with scooters or bicycles. Picnic near the playground equipment so children can still see you and you them while they play.
  • This age group will spend hours playing in a swimming pool. Make sure your children are swim safe – so lessons are essential first and they need to be supervised.
  • Monitor screen time – restrict television to a few favourite shows each day. Turn the television off once they are finished. Try to avoid having the television on all the time. Make sure screens are off at least two hours before sleep time as exposure to the screen affects the quality of sleep.


The most active teenagers are those who grow up playing a sport and continue to do so during the teenage years. If your child is a reluctant exerciser and needs to be dragged kicking and screaming from a screen it’s definitely a challenge to get them active! Here are a few suggestions:

  • Start slowly. If you have a dog, make it the responsibility of the teenager in the house to walk the dog daily. Even if they just amble along for 10 minutes, it’s exercise they would not have otherwise had. Gradually encourage a longer walk.
  • If watching television, try to build in some exercise when the commercials are on. Make a game of it. Who can do the most leg lifts in a row? How many push-ups can you do in the ad break?
  • Boys love to have muscles. Encourage weight training – start with just their own body as the weight doing push-ups, the plank, crunches, etc. All build muscle bulk.
  • Encourage participation sport. You may have to look around and try different sports until your child finds something that they enjoy.

Active movement improves learning

Experience-based data and evolving empirical data provides compelling evidence about the relationship between active movement and learning. In particular, children who have the essential motor skill patterns developed from infancy are more likely to do well academically.

KindyROO/GymbaROO graduates perform better at school

GymbaROO and KindyROO programs provide activities that are fun for both parent and child and where parents are motivated through knowledge sharing to have fun reinforcing the program at home. Every song sung, every game played and every activity has been specifically designed and honed over 30 years to naturally reinforce the development of pathways of the brain that form the foundations for future learning of our little ones.

A major Australian university is currently using NAPLAN results to compare the scholastic outcomes of:

  • graduates of KindyROO/GymbaROO programs who have reinforced the program at home daily (highest probability of best scholastic outcomes based on experience-based data) for approximately three years
  • graduates of KindyROO/GymbaROO programs who have just attended once a week (without daily reinforcement) for approximately three years
  • non-KindyROO/GymbaROO attendees from a similar socioeconomic background.

Ongoing studies of KindyROO/GymbaROO schools programs show:

  • NAPLAN results in the lowest three bands are significantly reduced exceptional achievements
  • markedly improved social and emotional behaviour in the class.
  • International universities are seeking projects with KindyROO to help them understand how and why KindyROO/GymbaROO graduates are more successful at school.

Research published in the USA Journal of Pediatrics shows:

  • children with excellent motor skills and cardiovascular functionality scholastically outperform those with just high cardiovascular functionality
  • children with excellent motor skills and cardiovascular functionality scholastically outperform those with high muscular strength.
1. Active, healthy kids Australia (2014). Is sport enough? Wolpert, D. (2014). The real reason for brains. TED talk. Retrieved from:
3. Barton R. (2014) Cinderella of the brain: the under-appreciated role of the cerebellum in cognitive evolution development and pathology. Conference presentation, INPP Conference, Vienna. Austria, Sept 2014.
4. Esteban-Cornejo, I, Terejo-Gonzalez, C.M., Martinez-Gomez, D., del-Campo, J., Gonzalez-Galo, A., Padilla-Moledo, C., Sallis, J.F., Veiga, O.L. & UP & DOWN study group. (2014). Independent and combined influence of the components of physical fitness on academic performance in youth. The Journal of Pediatrics, 165: 306-312.
5. Hillman, C. H., Pontifex, M.B., Casteli, D.M., Naiman, A. K., Raine, L.B., Scudder, M.R., Drolette, E.S., Moore, R.D., Wu, C-T., Kamijo, K. (2014). Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function. Pediatrics 134(4) e1063e1071
6. Holley, P.A. (2010). Why do some children learn more easily than others? What physical factors influence effective learning? Masters Thesis. School of Education, Melbourne University.
7. Luz, C., Rodrigues, L.P. & Cordovil, R. (2015). The relationship between motor coordination and executive functions in 4th grade children. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12(2), pp129-141 DOI: 10.1080/17405629.2014.966073
8. Williams, J. & Holley. P.A. (2013). Linking motor development in infancy and early childhood to later school learning. Australian Journal of Child and Family health Nursing, 10(1), 15 – 21.
9. Hesketh et al. (2014) Activity levels in mothers and their pre-school children. Paediatrics. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-3153.
10. Thelen, E. (2004). The central role of action in typical and atypical development. In: Movement and action in learning and development: clinical implications for pervasive developmental orders (Ed: I. Stockman), (pp. 49-73). Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press.

Written by

Dr Jane Williams

Dr Jane Williams (PhD) is the Director of Research and Education for GymbaROO and KindyROO

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