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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Exercise and Movement Can Make You Smart

Excerpts of a Die Zeit article translated by Jennifer M that discuss the dangers in allowing children to lead too sedentary lives. Originally published in Currents April/May 2004, Children's Corner Column.

In April 2002, Renate Zimmer wrote an article for Die Zeit entitled “Toben macht schlau.” Here is a translated excerpt from her article:

Earlier, to be grounded was a tough punishment. Today it is a term that children hardly ever hear, much less fear. The truth is that the gross motor skills of children have dramatically, even drastically, decreased over the last several years. Children are no longer mastering fundamental skills such as catching a ball, running quickly up a staircase and jumping quickly back down, balancing on a beam, climbing a tree or walking on an uneven surface while maintaining balance.

One reason for this could be that in our society, learning is coupled with sitting. And while in earlier times the afternoons were filled with outdoor activities, today children spend their afternoons relaxing in front of the television, then in front of the computer playing games and finally back at their desks doing homework. The influence of technology and the media is suppressing the mobility of our children.

Lack of movement has become a social illness. The number of first graders classified as being overweight has doubled in the last ten years. Today, every fifth child is overweight. An obesity problem leads not only to physical problems, but also to a lack of self-confidence.

Movement restrictions do not find their beginnings when our children start school, however. Many babies spend the first several months of their lives strapped in infant car seat carriers. In former times, parents had a guilty conscience for leaving their kids in a playpen. Now the playpen seems like a paradise in comparison to the restrictiveness of the infant carriers. At least in the playpen, the babies were able to rock back and forth, creep around, poke toys in and out of the spokes, use the spokes for attempts to stand up and rotate around. Contrastingly, the infant carrier stands for safety, perhaps a sign of the times. Your baby cannot escape this restriction to his experience with the world. The senses become dull if they are not needed or used. It has been scientifically proven that in the first few years of life, the more our nervous system is stimulated with input, the more effective and advanced it becomes. The less it is stimulated, the fewer neural synapses develop and the slower and less-advanced it becomes.

One way to combat this is by introducing more physical education lessons to every school student’s day. In a study carried out in Hessen, it was shown that one hour of PE every day improved the entire school’s academic standings. Ultimately, much remains in the hands of the parents to teach their children about the benefits of movement and exercise. Unfortunately, the group of children who get a lot of exercise and the group of children who get too little are moving farther and farther apart. Many children are enrolled in special sports classes or play team sports, while others come from families who cannot afford such activities or who are physically unmotivated to do so.

The best solution is for adults to rediscover the value of movement and exercise and the necessity for them to play a role in day to day activities. For example, your child’s room should not be full of electronic games or mono-functional furniture, but should be full of space and provide opportunity for movement. In addition, venturing just yards away from the edge of a path in the woods provides a plethora of opportunities: leaf-covered ground, foot-catching roots and fallen trees for balancing upon. The experience provides plenty of challenges to encourage the culture of the body and to provide primitive learning experiences that are much more than just sports: that practice brings success closer, that you are responsible your own actions and that effort improves your accomplishments.

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