Skip to main content
kids on the playground

Kids Can’t Focus? Here’s What They Might Need

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Heidi Radunovich, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

I really appreciate the teachers and administrators at my children’s school and everything they do for the students every day. I know they have a challenging and intense job, though the rewards are also great.

Fitness: Often Left Out of The School Day

However, if I were to air one pet peeve about my kids’ educational experience, it would be that they don’t get enough daily exercise time. Physical education is only once per week, and recess is short. What’s more, recess is often skipped if students misbehave or if class material isn’t covered fast enough.

From talking to other friends across the country and reading about this subject, I know my school and district aren’t alone in these practices. Yet research shows that active exercise and play are key not only to children’s physical health, but also to their ability to focus and learn.

An Experimental Exercise Program

New research published in the journal Pediatrics underlines this point, looking especially at how regular, vigorous exercise affects children’s cognitive functioning—that is, how they are able to think, learn, and process information. In the study, about 220 children between the ages of 7 and 9 were randomly assigned either to a daily after-school exercise program or to its waitlist. Children in the program participated in at least an hour of high-intensity, structured exercise almost every day after school for a year, while the wait-list children went about their lives as usual.

Fitness Improved…And So Did Thinking Skills

At the end of the year, the children who participated in the exercise program had made improvements in their level of fitness, while the control group children had not. Perhaps more notably, though, the children who’d gone through the fitness program also made gains in some of their cognitive skills. Compared to the other children, they showed improvement in mental tasks that required self-control, focus, and flexibility. In fact, measures of brain activity also showed notable differences between the two groups as they completed the tasks.

These findings suggest that daily vigorous activity may be able to positively affect children’s cognitive functioning. This is yet another reason to ensure that schoolchildren get plenty of time to exercise during the school day—not just for the sake of their growing bodies, but also for the sake of their young minds.


Hillman, C.H., et al. (2014). Effects of the FITKids randomized controlled trial on executive control and brain function. Pediatrics, 134(4), 1063-1071.