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Developing Happy and Healthy Children Through Arts and Games

17/02/2016 17:44 GMT | Updated 16/02/2017 10:12 GMT
Hiroyuki Ito via Getty Images

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We know that the skills associated with highly successful and mentally healthy people are acquired outside the classroom, instead of in academic settings.

Our current educational system operates on the logic that to achieve better academic results, we are supposed to spend as much time as possible engaged in intellectual activities.

We prioritize spending time in a classroom, when we should really be dedicating more time to art projects, sports, and ludic activities.

Forcing students to stay focused on overwhelmingly academic content is a failed strategy. The fact that a large number of children seek medical help in order to keep their concentration is proof of such failure.

This overly academic approach overlooks a very important fact about the development of intellect; it grows hand in hand with physical, social and emotional development.

When we invest in multiple human capacities, we guarantee the development of happy and healthy individuals, while successfully building their intellectual capacity.

In addition to cognitive and physical gains, sports activities reduce the chance of children and adults suffering the consequences of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Kids need to learn how to control their impulses and attention spans more than they need to absorb information. They need to learn how to share and wait their turn; how to deal with social conflicts; how to cope with frustration and defeat; how to feel valued and be part of a team; and to practice balance, coordination, and physical agility.

Those skills will be not developed at a desk, but rather on sports courts and fields, or during dance and art classes.

We usually associate sports and dancing with a healthy lifestyle and physical strength. Such aspects are important, but there are many other benefits.

Sports -- especially those that require more discipline and strategy, such as dance, martial arts, and group games -- improve various executive functions that make up a successful individual.

Among the key skills are: working memory, which is the ability to keep information in the mind to later manipulate or reproduce, and cognitive flexibility, which involves creative thinking and problem-solving.

Another executive function is inhibitory control, which includes self-discipline, the ability to control our emotions and actions, deciding how to direct our attention, resisting temptation and refraining from acting impulsively. Those who live with hyperactive children know how crucial these skills are to their social and academic performance.

The lack of self-control in childhood is a better predictor of future problems than any other factor, such as family background, IQ, or socioeconomic status. This finding was confirmed in a study conducted over 30 years by researchers from several American and Canadian universities.

According to the study, which sampled thousands of individuals, those who were less impulsive and had more control over their actions as children had become healthier, more professionally successful adults, and were less likely to suffer from substance abuse, obesity or engage in criminal activities.

Activities that improve physical strength and promote discipline may contribute more significantly to academic performance than intellectual activities.

To prove the relationship between practicing sports and the development of executive functions, researchers at the University of Georgia in the United States tested 171 children before and after a 13-week exercise program. They confirmed an increase of activity in the bilateral frontal cortex, which is associated with executive functions, and they noticed an improvement in intelligence tests.

Several other studies had already demonstrated the role of sports in cognitive performance in adults and children. One explanation is the increased blood flow in the cerebral cortex, leading to an increase of synapses and the creation of new nerve cells.

Neurogenesis -- the growth of nerve tissues -- specifically occurs in the hippocampus, a region responsible for memory. Excessive and prolonged levels of stress lead to changes in brain structure, and may alter neurogenesis levels.

Thus, in addition to cognitive and physical gains, sports activities reduce the chance of children and adults suffering the consequences of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Sports, music, dance, and games have been around for millennia, in all cultures, for good reason: they play an important role in the development of various interrelated skills that support intellectual development.

Therefore, activities that improve physical strength and promote discipline may contribute more significantly to academic performance than intellectual activities.

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Young Minds Matter is a new series meant to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com

This post first appeared on HuffPost Brazil. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.