School has barely started, but already parents are struggling to get their kids to focus on their homework or daily reading assignments. Who hasn’t heard (or said): finish your homework and then you can go play outside? School work is super important, right? Studying hard is how we succeed academically.
Well, maybe not.
In order to focus on school work, kids need to activate their executive functioning skills. As a general rule, the younger the child, the more poorly developed those skills are, and the more work it takes to access them. What’s executive functioning? It’s the mental process that lets us sort through the information in our brain and decide what to do with it. Imagine a business executive sitting at their desk with a full email box, sorting out which messages to tackle first, who to forward projects to, and when they’ve gotten enough of a handle on it to take their coffee break.
When we’re talking about children, especially in the context of academics, executive functioning is what lets them filter out the sound of their younger sister playing in the next room while they do their math homework, or remember the instructions for their essay assignment for long enough to get it written. It can be the key to actually picking up a pencil to start the homework, or stay in the chair and finish it, even though that Lego set in the next room is calling. It’s also what children need to remember which folder their worksheets go in, and to decide which subject to tackle first when they have a list of homework assignments. Do they do their reading, study their spelling words, or finish their math assignment? Or, do they stare out the window, paralyzed by indecision?
Studies have started to show what long-time yoga practitioners know: yoga and mindfulness improves executive function and yoga during the school day supports a productive learning environment. But a mat-based practice or yoga and mindfulness breaks in class isn’t the only way to develop these skills. It turns out that out-door time is critical for our mental health and focus as well.
Especially after a full day of school, our kids’ minds are taxed. Its like their brain spent a few hours at the gym lifting heavy weights. Just like our muscles need rest in order to build themselves up and become stronger, our kids’ brain needs a break to restore its focus. You’re not going to find a much better mental reset than playing outside.
During free play, and especially free play outside, the prefrontal cortex is activated, and guess what? That’s exactly the part of our brain that’s responsible for executive functioning. Get kids outside and moving and you’ll kickstart the part of their brain they need to have in gear to get through their homework.
In addition to boosting executive function, playing outside exposes children to Vitamin D, which can give them a boost of energy and help regulate their sleep cycle. Those kids who can’t settle down at night–the ones who wind up exhausted by the end of the school day because they didn’t get enough sleep? Get them outside. An unrested child is an unfocused child. (Vitamin D is also linked to a stronger immune system, so time outside–even when its chilly–can help ward off illness.)
Need one more reason why playing outside helps with academics? New studies are showing a link between near-sighteness (the most common reason children need glasses) and a lack of outdoor play. Genetics plays a major role in eyesight, but it turns out that nearsightedness is is also linked to how we use our eyes. Close visual work, like reading or working on a computer, can increase the odds of its development. Studies in two countries have shown that 40 minutes or more of outdoor time daily decreases the likelihood of near-sightedness in children.
The next time you’re battling with your child to focus on their homework–or anything else that requires higher level thinking–try sending them outside for a reset, and then try again. That twenty minute break could save you an hour of fighting.
Jessica LaGarde has been teaching creative movement in the metro area since 2005 and is passionate about helping children discover and explore their bodies and the world around them. She was trained by Joye Newman, MA to teach preschool creative movement for Kids’ Moving Company, a Bethesda-based creative movement/perceptual motor therapy studio. In 2017, she completed her Baby, Toddler, and Children’s Yoga Teacher Training through Childlight Yoga. In addition to working with preschoolers, Jessica is a registered massage practitioner and is trained in infant massage instruction. She has practiced massage for over twelve years and taught massage as part of Potomac Massage Training Institute’s professional training program. Outside of the movement space and massage room, she enjoys cooking, knitting, sewing, gardening and exploring the outdoors with her daughter.