How does physical activity benefit classroom learning?

Children can learn to regulate their emotions and behavior through physical activity. This may help them in the classroom. Parents and schools can take advantage of this by encouraging their children to play and participate in sports and games that are age-appropriate.

COVID-19 had a profound impact on the lives of children – both mentally and physically. When schools closed, one knock-on effect was to reduce children’s levels of physical activity. Unfortunately, less advantaged children were most affected, owing to their limited access to safe, open spaces for games and exercise. It is important to be active because it has a positive effect on not only physical health and mental well-being but also behavioral and emotional control.

They use their skills of behavioral regulation to control their actions and achieve specific goals, such as when they raise their hand instead of shouting the answer in class. Emotional control helps them express and manage their emotions healthily.

Active living has a positive effect not only on physical health and mental well-being but also on behavior and emotional regulation skills.

In a study I conducted with Michelle Ellefson, in which we examined the relationship between self-regulation and academic outcomes for over 4,000 children, I found that physical activity was associated with better emotional regulation skills. Physical activity in 7-year-olds was associated with better skills in emotional regulation. Better emotional regulation was then linked to higher scores on math and literacy tests. In contrast, physical activity among 11-year-olds was associated with better behavioral code and higher academic achievement. These findings suggest physical activity can promote better educational outcomes at different ages by affecting self-regulation.

It is interesting to note that the relationship between physical activity and regulation skills appears stronger among less advantaged children. Our findings indicate that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit most from physical exercise. We hope that sports and games that encourage children’s attention or focus reduce the achievement gap among children of different social backgrounds.

How sports and games can help regulate emotions and behavior

Parents can also play games at home with their children. Teachers can integrate games into physical education classes. Early childhood games that encourage emotional regulation can be very beneficial. Musical chairs and musical statues are good options. Children move around as the music plays, then scramble on a chair to sit or freeze once it stops. These games require children to stop moving when the music stops. These games teach children how to control their emotions if they feel excluded.

Our findings indicate that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit most from physical activity.

Co-operative games are also helpful. In one game, the child is asked to cover their eyes while being led by a friend on a short walk. Both children must cooperate to achieve a common goal, and they have to control their emotions when it becomes difficult. This type of exercise improves children’s emotional regulation skills so that they can be less affected by their feelings and focus better on the task.

As children enter adolescence, schools and parents may encourage them to participate in sports that demand behavioral control. Netball players, for instance, must stop moving while holding the ball and be able to throw the ball accurately to the other players or into the net. Students can use the behavior control they learn on the netball field to help them control their behavior in the classroom and resist the temptation to play games with friends during class time. These specific ideas need to be tested, but research has shown that there is a promising connection between sports team involvement and higher academic achievement. Physical activity is important for the development of emotional regulation and behavior. It also appears to enhance classroom learning.


I am researching the creative aspects of physical activities and their impact on cognition, social and emotional learning, and primary school children in collaboration with the Observatory for Sport Scotland. I want to improve the way physical education is taught at schools. Please get in touch with me at or visit the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development for more information on this project or to get involved.


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