Exercising Intelligence: How Physical Activity Nurtures Brain Development in Children

While many parents and caregivers acknowledge that being physically active can produce significant health advantages for children, the full impact of engaging in physical activity on learning and one’s overall well-being might not be entirely evident. Motor-skill development can have a profound effect on children’s social, cognitive, and psychological domains. Below are some examples of how motor-skill development can intertwine with cognitive growth.

Neurological Connection: Neural pathways in the brain connect motor and cognitive functions. When children participate in activities that challenge their motor skills, such as balancing or coordination exercises, they activate brain regions that are responsible for cognitive processes like planning, decision-making, and problem-solving (Best, 2010; Shi et al., 2022; Veldman et al., 2019).

  • What we see: Dale is learning to rollerblade. He moves his arms and legs to maintain balance, move forward, and make adaptations, so he can stay upright as the contours of the sidewalk change.
  • What we don’t see: Dale’s brain is forming connections between the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex—key regions for motor and cognitive functions (Shi et al., 2022). As he encounters environmental cues like bumps and obstacles, his brain swiftly adjusts to maintain balance. This activity improves Dale’s agility, coordination, and cardiovascular fitness and strengthens his cognitive processes, such as attentiveness and perception.

Cognitive Engagement: Cognition is the mental process of acquiring, processing, and storing information, which includes perception, memory, thinking, and imagination (Shi et al., 2022). Acquiring and developing cognitive abilities are essential for survival and development. When children participate in motor activities that require coordination, precision, and goal-directed action, they refine their cognitive skills as they plan, strategize, and adjust their movements to achieve desired outcomes (Gibb et al., 2021; Pesce et al., 2016).

  • What we see: Ella and Nellie are playing a game of “Red Light, Green Light.” Ella moves forward when Nellie says, “green light,” and she stops when Nellie says “red light.” Occasionally, Nellie tries to deceive Ella by saying similar-sounding words.
  • What we don’t see: Ella’s brain is actively involved in various cognitive
    processes, such as comprehending instructions, responding to verbal cues, and suppressing impulsive reactions. Beyond refining her physical coordination, Ella’s brain is exercising her working memory, inhibitory control, and flexibility as she strategically plans and executes actions in pursuit of specific objectives.

Whole-Body Integration: Motor activities often involve the integration of various sensory inputs and whole-body movements. When children engage in activities that require coordination of multiple sensory systems, such as balancing or spatial-awareness tasks, they can refine their attention and concentration skills (Beck, 2022; Bergland, 2015; Cook et al., 2019).

  • What we see: A group of children are playing a game of Hide and Seek. They run, sneak, crawl, hide, and navigate through various hiding spots. Simultaneously, they monitor their surroundings and the movements of other players.
  • What we don’t see: As the children maneuver, they integrate their sensory inputs—vision, hearing, and proprioception (awareness of body position)—to coordinate their movements effectively. Their heightened awareness of the environment and anticipation of others’ actions helps them to adjust and refine their physical coordination, agility, attention, and spatial awareness. In addition, they develop multitasking skills as they simultaneously keep track of various elements.

Skill Transfer: Skills acquired through motor activities can benefit an individual’s cognitive abilities. When children engage in activities like balancing or climbing, they use spatial awareness and planning skills, and these skills can transfer to cognitive tasks such as problem-solving (Bergland, 2015; Shi et al., 2022).

  • What we see: Rajan and Ian are exploring a playground climber. They are pretending the ground is covered with lava and must navigate the climber without touching the ground. They climb up the slide tunnel, grab and travel along the monkey bars, run across a swinging bridge, and slide down a curvy pole.
  • What we don’t see: As Rajan and Ian encounter various obstacles, they challenge their brains to problem-solve in real time. As they balance and coordinate their movements, they utilize spatial reasoning, which enables them to overcome challenges and reach their goal. This process enhances their physical abilities, sharpens their cognitive skills, and fosters adaptability and decision-making. Further, their imaginative play adds an element of creativity and exploration to their experience.

Social Interaction: Participating in physical activities can create opportunities for children to interact with peers and practice social skills, like cooperation. These experiences may promote teamwork and communication skills and can help strengthen bonds and friendships among children (Khan et al., 2023; Shi et al., 2022).

  • What we see: LaShante is playing a game of basketball. As she runs up and down the court, she communicates with her teammates about offense strategies and defense tactics.
  • What we don’t see: LaShante’s involvement in physical activity facilitates her connection with peers. She is developing teamwork skills and learning to coordinate and collaborate within a group. When the team faces challenges, they do so together, which instills respect for each other’s contributions and creates a network of support. Even in defeat, the team’s unity can strengthen, which nurtures a sense of belonging and camaraderie.

Psychological Benefits: Motor development can impact a child’s sense of self-esteem and self-confidence as they master new skills and overcome challenges (Fong Yan et al., 2024). Physical activities trigger the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters that are associated with positive emotions. Positivity can contribute to stress reduction and improved mental health (Li et al., 2022; Martín-Rodríguez et al., 2024).

  • What we see: Feliks is participating in gymnastics after school. He somersaults and cartwheels on the mat, pulls himself up on the rings, swings on the bars, and performs choreographed routines on a padded floor.
  • What we don’t see: Feliks has found an avenue for self-expression and is able to channel his energy and enthusiasm into dynamic movement. As he immerses himself in different activities, he encounters a shift in neural activity, which leads to a surge of positivity that permeates his psyche. Furthermore, each new skill he learns becomes a source of pride and accomplishment. When he shares his triumphs with his family and friends, he builds confidence and nurtures a strong belief in his capabilities.

Encouraging physical activity and motor-skill development through purposeful play can support children’s physical and cognitive growth. When children engage in activities that challenge their motor skills, these activities can promote growth across a variety of learning domains. For further information and suggestions on integrating physical activity into your child’s daily schedule, please refer to the additional resources below.

Additional Resources

Moving to Thrive

5210: Definitions and recommendations

5210: Quick physical activity breaks

Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans


Beck, C. (2022, June 11). Tag games to develop motor skills. The OT Toolbox. https://www.theottoolbox.com/tag-games/#:~:text=When%20kids%20are%20running%20around,Proprioception

Bergland, C. (2015, July). Want to improve your cognitive abilities? Go climb a tree! Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201507/want-improve-your-cognitive-abilities-go-climb-tree

Best, J. (2010, December). Effects of physical activity on children’s executive function: Contributions of experimental research on aerobic exercise. Developmental Review, 30(4), 331-351. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2010.08.001

Cook, C. J., Howard, S. J., Scerif, G., Twine, R., Kahn, K., Norris, S. A., & Draper, C. E. (2019, September). Associations of physical activity and gross motor skills with executive function in preschool children from low-income South African settings. Developmental Science, 22, e12820. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12820

Fong Yan, A., Nicholson, L. L., Ward, R. E., Hiller, C. E., Dovey, K., Parker, H. M., Low, L., Moyle, G., & Chan, C.(2024, January). The effectiveness of dance interventions on psychological and cognitive health outcomes compared with other forms of physical activity: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Sports Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-023-01990-2

Gibb, R., Coelho, L., Van Rootselaar, N. A., Halliwell, C., MacKinnon, M., Plomp, I., & Gonzalez, C. L. R. (2021, December). Promoting executive function skills in preschoolers using a play-based program. Frontiers in Psychology12, 720225. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.720225

Khan, A., Werner-Seidler, A., Hidajat, T., Feng, J., Huang, W., & Rosenbaum, S. (2023, December). Association between sports participation and psychosocial wellbeing of Australian children: An 8-year longitudinal study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 73(6)1117-1124. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2023.07.011

Li, J., Huang, Z., Si, W., & Shao, T. (2022, November). The effects of physical activity on positive emotions in children and adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19(21). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph192114185

Martín-Rodríguez, A., Gostian-Ropotin, L. A., Beltrán-Velasco, A. I., Belando-Pedreño, N., Simón, J. A., López-Mora, C., Navarro-Jiménez, E., Tornero-Aguilera, J. F., & Clemente-Suárez, V. J. (2024, January). Sporting mind: The interplay of physical activity and psychological health. Sports (Basel)12(1), 37. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports12010037

Pesce, C., Masci, I., Marchetti, R., Vazou, S., Sääkslahti, A., & Tomporowski, P. D. (2016, March 10). Deliberate play and preparation jointly benefit motor and cognitive development: Mediated and moderated effects. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 349. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00349

Shi, P., & Feng, X. (2022, November 20). Motor skills and cognitive benefits in children and adolescents: Relationship, mechanism and perspectives. Frontiers in Psychology13, 1017825. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1017825

Veldman, S., Santos, R., Jones, R., Sousa-Sa, E., & Okely, A. (2019, May). Associations between gross motor skills and cognitive development in toddlers. Early Human Development, 132, 39-44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2019.04.005