Take a Brain Break!
Play to Boost Physical Activity and Creativity
Amy has more than 10 years of experience as an early childhood educator, both in the classroom and the museum setting. In her current role, she focuses on staff professional development, program evaluation, coaching, and consulting for the Center for Childhood Creativity. Previously, she spent six years directing early childhood education strategic initiatives at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and a large science center in the Midwest. She was a classroom teacher, primarily for preschool, prior to her work in museums. She currently sits on the First 5 Marin Commission and was a founding member of the Leadership Team for the Association of Science and Technology Centers Early Childhood Community of Practice. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and a Master of Education degree in early childhood education.
As Director of Research at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Helen authors original research on creative thinking and child development including the white papers Inspiring a Generation to Create, Reimagining School Readiness, and Roots of STEM Success. She launched and manages the onsite research lab at the Bay Area Discovery Museum and partners with U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University to conduct empirical research on cognitive, social, and emotional development, with a focus on creative problem solving. She brings more than 18 years of experience in research and education settings, including years in the technology and toy industries conducting research with parents and children to develop innovative learning products at Hasbro, Apple, Leapfrog, and LEGO. Helen received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Stanford University and has taught at U.C. Davis and San Francisco State University.
The CREATE Framework
A = Active Play
- Spend as much time as possible outside! Being outside encourages physical activity and decreases the risk of depression and anxiety. Make use of community spaces such as playgrounds, beaches, gardens, or any outdoor public spaces.
- Swap out the stroller for a bike or scooter- your child will gain important physical skills like balance and may surprise you by how quickly they learn to move!
- Fine motor skills - the small body muscles used in writing and gripping a pencil - are important as well. Rip tape, build with blocks, or work with clay to strengthen those muscles.
- Have a couple of indoor spaces or activities in mind for when the weather is poor. Try your local children’s museum, aquarium or play space. At home, you can set up an obstacle course using small furniture, tape and pillows.
Play and learning go hand in hand. The same can be said for exercise and learning. Physical movement and exercise not only strengthen our bodies, but also enhance learning and boost creativity. For children, this is especially important because there are fewer opportunities for them to be active both in school and at home, given the reduction in recess time in many schools and increasing access and use of digital media.
The relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement has received increasing attention as a result of the dramatic increase of children who are overweight and unfit, and the pressure on schools to meet strict academic standards. A growing number of studies demonstrate that exercise is associated with better focus in children, as well as positive emotion, enhanced memory, and greater ability to learn starting in the grade school years. This body of evidence suggests that school policies that eliminate recess or Physical Education in order to make more time for academics are misguided. Of note, recent recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that recess plays a crucial and necessary role in child development. What’s good for the body is also good for the brain.
How might you incorporate frequent activity breaks? A good rule of thumb is to make sure that children are not sitting longer than three minutes per year of their age; hence, a five-year-old should have a chance for physical movement after 15 minutes.
A related but newer area of research investigates the relationship between physical activity and creativity. Conventional wisdom suggests that creative individuals sometimes engage in physical activity to help overcome mental blocks and get their cognitive juices flowing. The famous philosopher Henry David Thoreau described this phenomenon eloquently when he said, “The moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow—as if I had given vent to the stream at the lower end and consequently new fountains flowed into it at the upper.”
Current research, mostly with adults, suggests that physical activity may sometimes enhance creative thinking. In a series of experiments, researchers had college students complete a set of creativity tasks—both convergent and divergent thinking tasks—while seated or walking on a treadmill or outdoors. Convergent thinking tasks involve finding the single, optimal solution to a problem (e.g., finding the correct answer to a multiple-choice problem), while divergent thinking tasks required generating many possible solutions to a problem (e.g., brainstorming). The researchers found that walking had a large effect on divergent thinking, with an average increase in creative output of around 60%. In another experiment, walking outside led to generating the most novel and highest quality analogies, suggesting that engaging not only in physical activity, but with the outdoors, can help individuals comes up with new and creative ideas.