Preschoolers Literally Can’t Sit Still, So Stop Expecting Them To

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
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When my son was getting ready to start preschool, my biggest fear was that he wouldn’t be able to sit still. He was four, and honestly, sitting still just wasn’t a strong point for him. If I’m being honest, it’s still not. Then again, I dare you to show me a 4-year-old who is able to sit still for an extended period of time. It’s not a common trait for this demographic.

At the age of four, kids are looking to learn more about the world around them, and one of the best ways to do that is through physical activity. To anyone who’s ever spent time with preschoolers, forcing them to sit still for long periods of time seems like a lesson in futility. And yet, that’s exactly what happens in some schools.

I wonder who decided little kids learn better sitting still and being talked at? Obviously they had never been actually been around a bunch of three-, four- and five-year-olds for more than 10 minutes. Because that’s about as long as they can sit before they get antsy. Once they start to get antsy, any hope you have of teaching them anything is lost.

Simply put, kids, especially preschool kids, need physical activity to truly be able to learn.

We have an abundance of scientific information that shows how clear the connection between movement and learning is. The book Teaching with the Brain in Mind has an entire chapter outlining how the brain needs movement to facilitate learning.

The cerebellum, which is located at the back of the brain, is the center for motor control in the brain. While it’s only about the size of a fist, almost half of the brain’s neurons are located within the cerebellum. Peter Strick and his team, working at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center of Syracuse, New York found a path going from the cerebellum to parts of the brain you need for spatial perception, memory, and attention. These are all crucial things young kids in particular need to learn and retain information.

Multiple studies mentioned in the book point to the correlation between physical activity and learning for children. There are plenty of games kids play at preschool age that may seem simply like play from the outside. But when you actually look at the game, you see it’s a learning tool. Take for example, a game like Simon Says. Kids are learning to follow instructions through physical activity. Simon Says forces them to be actively paying attention because if they’re not, they’ll miss their next step.

Similarly, engaging in activities like building blocks, which involves problem solving, is imperative. Play is learning, and this fact can’t be stressed enough.

Remaining sedentary throughout the day isn’t good for anyone, really. Even if you work in a traditional office setting, you have freedom to get up and move around at your will. We adults know sitting in front of our computers all day isn’t good for us. So, we make tend to make an effort to get up during our work day and engage in some sort of physical activity. Often, we will take a walk, even if it’s just to the bathroom or around our desks.

If we know that’s a good thing for us to do, and our bodies tell us to do this, why aren’t we allowing that same freedom to our children?

“When you move, you stimulate all the nerve cells that we use to think with, and when you stimulate those nerve cells, it gets them ready to do stuff,” Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told CNN.

Physical activity for kids intermittently throughout the day gives them a chance to get their wiggles out. At my son’s preschool, the kids change activities approximately every 20 minutes. This includes the time they spend sitting at their tables working on math and language arts activities.

Additionally, a study published by Pediatrics in 2017 finds that physical activity has a positive effect on classroom productivity in children. Researchers used 26 studies, totaling 10,206 children between the ages of 4 and 13. It notes that having PE (gym) during the day is the best way to help kids have better academic achievement. But they interestingly discovered that adding physical activity into the classroom helps skills related to math. Plus, physical activity helps with classroom behavior and “reading, and composite scores in youth.”

We need to stop expecting more from preschoolers than they are capable of giving us. Developmentally, it’s hard (impossible) to get these little folks to sit still for long periods of time. This isn’t a secret. It’s also not necessary, but some schools are ignoring this reality. It’s problematic.


“It’s also going to help with behavioral issues in the classroom, because if kids are able to move, they’re not going to have so much excess energy. They’re going to be able to focus, and it’s going to solve a lot of the sort of interpersonal issues that come up with kids as well, because they’re going to have an opportunity to get that energy out,” Susan Kamin, chief wellness officer for the National Association of Physical Literacy tells CNN.

Think about how wound up our kids are when they come home from school every day. All this pent up energy can come across in negative ways too, from meltdowns to mood swings.

One of the most common arguments we’re hearing from schools is that there isn’t enough time in the school day for physical activity. As outlined by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative schools should be aiming for an hour (60 minutes) of physical activity a day.

“One of the biggest pieces of feedback we get from schools in the field is, ‘we are very busy places. We appreciate what everyone offers, but it’s overwhelming. Can you make it easier for us to know what’s available?’ ” Charlene Burgeson, executive director of Active Schools, a company that grew out of “Let’s Move” tells CNN.

We aren’t blaming teachers. Many teachers and administrators are torn between giving kids an adequate amount of physical activity and the ridiculous amount of work the curriculum requires. There are a finite amount of hours in the school day, and trying to prepare kids for outrageous academic standards takes away from their physical needs.

Susan Kamin also notes that some of the opposition comes from people in positions of power who, despite the evidence, simply refuse to adapt. They’re approaching it in a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. But in reality, it’s very broken.

The good news is we know how to fix it. Let’s do that.

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