Physical activity teaches children behavioural and emotional regulation skills that may benefit classroom learning. Schools and parents can capitalise on this link by encouraging children to engage in games and sports that are appropriate for their age.

COVID-19 has had profound effects on all aspects of kids’ lives – both mental and physical. 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. Being active has a positive impact not only on physical health and mental wellbeing, but also on behavioural and emotional regulation skills.

Children use their behavioural regulation skills to manage their actions and achieve certain goals – when putting up their hand in class instead of shouting out the answer, for example. They use their emotional regulation skills to manage and express their feelings in an appropriate way, such as by disagreeing with other children without getting into an argument.

“Being active has a positive impact not only on physical health and mental wellbeing, but also on behavioural and emotional regulation skills.”

In a recent study conducted with Michelle Ellefson, I looked at the relationship between physical activity, self-regulation, and academic outcomes in more than 4,000 children. In 7-year-olds, physical activity was linked to better emotional regulation skills, and better emotional regulation, in turn, was associated with higher scores on literacy and maths tests. Physical activity in 11-year-olds, on the other hand, was linked to better behavioural regulation, which was linked to higher academic achievement. These findings suggest that physical activity promotes better academic outcomes by affecting different types of self-regulation at different ages.

Interestingly, the link between physical activity and regulation skills seems to be stronger in less advantaged children than in their peers. Our findings suggest that disadvantaged children benefit the most from physical activity. We are hopeful that games and sports that encourage children to focus on a task or maintain attention could help reduce the attainment gap between children from different social backgrounds.

How games and sports can support emotional and behavioural regulation

Teachers can incorporate suitable games into physical education lessons, while parents can play games with their children at home. In early childhood, games that require emotional regulation are particularly beneficial. Good options include musical chairs and musical statues, in which children move about as music is playing, then scramble to sit down on a chair or freeze when it stops. In these games, children have to control their movements when the music stops. Playing games like these teaches children to control their emotions when they are excluded.

“Our findings suggest that disadvantaged children benefit the most from physical activity.”

Games that involve co-operation are helpful as well. In one such game, a child covers their eyes and is led on a walk by a peer. The two children must work together towards a common goal and control their emotions when the task becomes challenging. This kind of exercise helps children improve their emotional regulation skills so they may be less influenced by their emotions in the classroom and better able to focus on the task at hand.

When children reach adolescence, schools and parents might encourage them to play organised sports that require behavioural control. In netball, for example, players have to stop moving when they are holding the ball, and they must be able to throw accurately to other players and into the net. Behavioural control learnt on the netball court may transfer to the classroom, enabling students to control their behaviour during lessons and ignore the temptation to play with their friends when they’re meant to be learning. More research is needed to test these specific ideas, but studies have shown a promising link between sports team participation and higher academic achievement. Physical activity has an important part to play in the development of emotional and behavioural regulation – and appears to improve classroom learning, especially for disadvantaged children.


In cooperation with the Observatory for Sport Scotland and the University of London, I am currently researching creative aspects of physical activity and their impact on cognition as well as social and emotional learning in primary school children. My objective is to improve how physical education is taught in schools. Please get in touch with me on [email protected] or visit the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development for more information on this project or to get involved.

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