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The Dance of Development: Motor Skills and the Brain

The Connection Between Physical Play and Mental Development:

As parents, we often marvel at the physical milestones our children achieve, from their first steps to the moment they master riding a bike. But did you know that these physical milestones are closely linked to significant brain development, especially in areas related to cognitive executive function skills?  In this article we explain the connections between the  motor cortex (which is involved in physical activities) and the prefrontal cortex (which is involved in cognitive functions), and how they work together to develop your child’s executive function (EF) skills.

The Motor Cortex: The Realm of Movement

The motor cortex, located in the frontal lobe of the brain, is divided into the primary motor cortex and the premotor areas. The primary motor cortex is directly involved in generating neural impulses that control the execution of movement. Meanwhile, the premotor areas play a crucial role in the planning and coordination of movements. When a child learns to walk, grasp a toy, or jump, the motor cortex is actively mapping out the necessary movements, refining neural pathways to make these actions smoother and more coordinated over time. 


The Prefrontal Cortex: Controlling our Executive Function (EF) skills

Sitting at the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is the control center for executive functions. These include planning, decision-making, problem-solving, and regulating emotions. The development of the prefrontal cortex is a long process that continues into early adulthood. In young children, this area of the brain is rapidly developing, laying the groundwork for complex cognitive abilities. When children engage in tasks requiring attention, strategy, or self-control, the prefrontal cortex lights up, building and strengthening neural connections. 

Making Connections: Motor and Executive Function

When children engage in motor activities, they’re not just using the motor cortex; they’re also activating the prefrontal cortex. For example, when a child plans how to navigate an obstacle course, they’re using their motor cortex to execute movements while relying on the prefrontal cortex for planning and problem-solving.

This interconnectedness means that developing motor skills can have a profound impact on cognitive functions. As children master new physical skills, they’re also training their brains to plan, coordinate, and execute complex actions. This dual development supports the enhancement of executive functions, such as:

  • Working Memory: Remembering and using important information while performing a task, like following multi-step instructions.
  • Cognitive Flexibility: The ability to adapt to new information or change strategies when solving a problem.
  • Inhibitory Control: The ability to resist impulses and distractions, focusing on the task at hand.

Implications for Parents and Educators:

Understanding the link between motor and cognitive development underscores the importance of physical activity and play in early childhood education. Encouraging activities that challenge both the body and the mind can foster this dual development, preparing children not just for academic success but for life’s many challenges.

Practical Tips for Parents


  • Encourage Varied Physical Play: Offer your child diverse physical activities that challenge both their fine and gross motor skills. Think beyond traditional sports – activities like dancing, gardening, or even simple household tasks can be beneficial.
  • Create a Challenge: Set up obstacle courses or scavenger hunts that require your child to plan their moves, adapt to new challenges, and solve problems along the way.
  • Play Together: Engage in physical play with your child. This not only strengthens your bond but also models positive behaviors and strategies for managing challenges.
  • Celebrate Efforts, Not Just Success: Praise your child for trying and persevering, not just for succeeding. This reinforces the value of effort and resilience, key components of a strong executive function.

The Takeaway

The development of motor skills and the maturation of the brain’s cognitive centers are deeply interconnected processes. Recognizing the role of physical activity in cognitive development is key to nurturing well-rounded, resilient children ready to explore, learn, and grow in all aspects of their lives.

Want to learn more about executive function skills? Take our free online course.

How does your child engage with nature in their day-to-day lives? Read our summary of a study that breaks down how playing in nature can help improve Executive Function!