Does your child struggle to sit still? Here's why that's a good thing

Photo: Shuttertock
Photo: Shuttertock 

Wriggly kids who can't ever seem to sit still are burning up to three kilograms a year from fidgeting, according to the latest Australian research.

The Deakin University study found that young children who fidgeted, wriggled and regularly changed positions while doing sedentary tasks, such as watching television, colouring and reading, were burning more calories than kids who remained still.

Researchers examined children to see how many movements they did while completing simple tasks and the results showed that fidgety behaviour could help reduce obesity.

"(Three kilograms) is pretty significant in helping to prevent unhealthy weight gain," Lead researcher Dr Katherine Downing said in regard to the extra calories burnt by wriggly kids.

"This study provides some nice preliminary evidence that childcare centres, pre-schools, and anywhere children are spending a lot of time sitting, they should be encouraging children to stand up and move more.

"Fidgeting could be a positive thing. Parents and teachers might not like me saying that, but maybe we shouldn't be discouraging that movement if there's potential benefits for health."

The team, from Deakin University, University of Wollongong and the University of Strathclyde, studied 40 children, aged four to six-years-old.

The children were asked to complete a series of sedentary activities over a 65-minute period. The tasks were conducted in a special room that measured energy expenditure by oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide exhalation.

They measured the number of "posture transitions" each child made, including lying to sitting, sitting to standing and squatting to kneeling. Kids made anywhere from 11 transitions to 53.

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"The fact there's that much variation when children are instructed to sit shows that some children are far more prone to fidgeting or restlessness than others," she said.

"We also saw that children moved more when engaged in interactive sedentary activities like drawing or playing with toys, as compared to more passive activities like watching TV."

Paediatric psychologist and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development in Preston and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development Amanda Abel said introducing movement breaks would help the overall health of kids.

"The study indicated an alarming figure of 10 hours a day spent in sedentary activities for children, which would certainly be impacting their overall health," Ms Abel said.

"For children who are resistant to activity, encouraging a movement break, with a clear purpose, is likely to help their health, and possibly increase their alertness for learning.

"Similarly, those children who are seeking movement or sensory input, the movement break will allow for this and provide much needed regulation (help them feel better) – also making them ready to learn."

She said children fidget for a number of reasons.

"In my almost 20 years of working with children, one of the biggest contributors to fidgeting, is when a child has differences in how they regulate their senses – basically they might be craving movement because this helps to regulate them (make them feel better)," Ms Abel said.

Children who fidget a lot, while burning additional calories as the research has found, were often using movement to help them better concentrate.

"Children who seek movement or sensory input are often misunderstood and labelled as 'naughty' children because they may look like they're not concentrating," she said.

"Interestingly, fidgeting, because it helps you regulate yourself, can actually improve concentration and improve learning."

Many schools were already taking steps to help children fidget in class to raise productivity such as – standing tables, inflatable cushions or fitness ball seats, 'fidget toys' and mats for movement.

"I think we are seeing a shift in the education system to allow for different learning styles as well as an understanding of modifying the environment to enhance a child's opportunity to learn in a meaningful way," she said.

"This means that all students can achieve better outcomes, not just those who learn in the 'traditional' sense."

And all kids will benefit from moving more.