Physical culture and cognitive development


It is about children's runs and young athletes who are our future. Ján Volko

When I was ten years old, I realized for the first time that something was wrong with my parents. They were walking slowly through the woods, looking for mushrooms, while my brother and I chased each other through the trees, circling my parents in great arcs. "It's amazing how much energy you have," Mom said. "You run ten times what we walk." Then a question occurred to me, but I didn't ask it: "And why don't you run?"

My father was a great sprinter, he was one of the best juniors in post-war Czechoslovakia. But I knew him only as a powerful man with a pot belly and a deliberate gait. My mother had an athletic physique, and I inherited my physique and stamina from her, and she liked to swim in the summer. But it was a dignified breaststroke style with her head above water so she wouldn't get her hair wet. My parents didn't play sports, except for one week in the winter when they gingerly glided down the hill on skis, and I don't remember them breaking a sweat in any physical activity.

That was almost their entire generation...

Physical education is a topic that has resonated in the public debate. It is perhaps for the first time. What is remarkable about this debate is that a significant part of it is the consideration of whether or not to add one extra hour of physical education to timetables. What is even more interesting is what is missing from this debate. If there is anything that does not really resonate, it is the benefits that can come from well-organised physical and sport education - what schools are supposed to provide to children and young people to develop their need to be active.

But - what is the point? To create and cultivate a relationship with movement and purposeful physical exertion in children and young people. However, the current debate about physical education suggests something quite different. Above all, it shows our lack of concern for the health and quality of life of the new generation now and then. Personal or mediated information suggests that we do not systematically develop active movement of pupils in Slovak schools, even though we have time for it and no one has even thought of questioning it. Physical education is formally accepted, sometimes we argue about the place in the gym, we fill up the wardrobes, and even 'sports day is on the agenda'. (One might think, for example: just a day? And the other days what?)

We are not taking the discussion about physical education in the right direction - we want to handle the wrong problem with the wrong solution, we want to handle the problem of the quality of teaching with a quantitative adjustment. This really cannot work out well: either we continue to let the pupils grow into the problem - during our debate about how long we will expose them to the problem, or we extend the time. The sad thing is that this seems like a nice blanket of feigned concern for the quality of life of children and young people. It is equally sad news that, during one version of the debate on changes in Slovak education, the educational area that received the least interest was Health and Movement, with its single subject - physical and sport education. Our lack of interest could not be demonstrated more strikingly - in the content, quality and "dynamics" of the one-off debate. Of course, we can argue about which physical activities to include in physical education, which physical qualities of pupils to monitor, which abilities to develop or what methods to use to increase children's fitness, endurance and strength. It sounds trivial, but the qualitative problem needs to be solved by changes in quality. In all of this, it can be taken for granted that even a good quality debate in a relevant direction does not necessarily mean that it will lead to the best solutions and that it will be possible to implement and evaluate them. Unfortunately, the current debate reinforces the certainty that we are not thinking about the best solutions, let alone planning how to implement them. In part, this is because we are unaware of the fallacy, both in principle and in consequence, that stems from understanding the body and the mind as two isolated phenomena.

If anything should resonate really strongly in the debate about physical education, it is, first and foremost, the relationship between the development of physical fitness and the development of pupils' cognitive abilities. Primarily because the mind cannot be understood and developed without knowledge of how its functioning relates to that of the body. The evolutionarily oldest and permanently necessary function of neurons is to provide the brain with data about the state of the body; cognitive functions have developed subsequently and in relation to the original function. The regulation of the body is a kind of brain ground floor, and the functioning of the mind stands on this ground floor both developmentally and functionally - thinking was not the reason the human brain evolved the way it did.

It has long been known that learning bodily actions strengthens existing brain structures while creating new ones. What is particularly interesting from the perspective of learning is that a single brain structure can carry out different kinds of cognitive processes. The belief that we only attend to the body by tending to the body, that the mind and thinking remain out of the picture, so to speak, during physical activity, simply does not hold water. To discuss the development of pupils' physical fitness in a constructive and in-depth way means that we thematise the subject of physical and sport education not just as a cognitively dead area of physical exertion, but as an educational time in which we are concerned not only with the quality of pupils' physical lives, but also with the quality of their thinking and cognition. Physical education is far from being only concerned with how fast a sixth grader can run sixty meters or how far an eighth grader can jump. Building sports grounds, investing in the renovation of gyms, buying sports equipment and tools - all of this is not on the table for the long term just to keep children entertained until they are in their desks. We should invest in sports environments and equipment, especially because, by using these resources in a methodical way, we can help pupils to develop their cognitive abilities. In relation to the relationship between the brain and the body, the discussion should also include what learning tools PE teachers and their colleagues will need to use to strengthen and develop students' physical and cognitive abilities in collaboration with each other. Yes, it should still be about varied experiences of purposeful physical exertion, but with the understanding that this variety is transferred to the organic structure of the body's governing instance - the brain. To begin with, perhaps they could do with tiered methodological tools that tell teachers what to do, with whom, what methods to use to organise the activities, with what intensity. The levels can be presented to pupils in an attractive and motivating way, even so that pupils will leave school with a lasting need to play sport regularly and thus to grow cognitively even after graduation. And not only that. It would certainly help pupils' personal development if we taught them to plan and implement sports participation in public events, to organise individual or collective physical activities financially and in time, to exercise with awareness of the health qualities that movement brings to a person, etc. These are themes that cut across adjacent educational fields, and so can be seen as a way of systematically stripping back the field of Health and Movement, and at the same time systematically building a synthetic educational context. Preliminarily, we could call it the Physical Culture.

Certainly, education for movement should be done primarily through the body and physical exertion - pupils should move first and foremost in physical education. Without movement there is no physical experience. But if we accept that the feeling of individual pleasure after sporting activity is biochemical in nature (just as the need to be in contact with digital technologies is biochemically justifiable), then the development of physical culture can be seen as at least one way of reducing the time pupils spend in contact with digital technologies. (The question of children's time is raised in the debate. But in a different place.) Simply put: to achieve a more balanced dopamine economy by flushing out endorphins. Feelings of social happiness can also be achieved through physical activity - now, for example during regular sporting events at school, and later, when one's sporting activity becomes part of active sharing - in the family, in relationships between peers and peer groups, employees, or people one doesn't yet know.

Apropos: employees. Many employers have long understood the positive impact of regular exercise on both the quality and quantity of work that employees are expected to do. It's really no coincidence that many companies support and participate in their employees' sporting activities - personally, financially and through branding. It can be inferred that a physically active employee brings more benefits to the employer than a passive employee. At the same time, it can be assumed that an employee who regularly participates in sport has a more developed mind and will, a more balanced and satisfied personality. An interesting idea in this context could be an interview in which a job candidate presents his sports portfolio to the employer - for example, talking about how he has competed in a half marathon.

Physical education is a topic that has resonated in the public debate. It is a pity that we have not invited the children, the pupils, to join in. Everything begins and ends with them. It is they who are at stake here. Moreover, they are not responsible for being born into a world that constantly distracts them, that takes away their attention, including that which they could devote to active movement - a way of improving themselves, their lives and the lives of those around them. Many children and many young people would certainly like to move, but they either do not know how to do it or have managed to forget the joy that sport brings. Its goal does not have to be the pride of victory or a gold medal. For a start, it will be enough that the children and the young people who are moving will be more balanced in terms of their energy intake and expenditure. A continuation of these improvements in pupils' physical lives could, at the same time, be improvements in their thinking and cognition. We have somehow already started a public debate about this. Now it will be a question of whether this long-distance run will also find its goal.

Karel Dvořák PhD. – DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools


DAMASIO, Antonio. Descartův omyl. Emoce, rozum a lidský mozek. Praha : Mladá fronta 2000

FELDMAN BARRETTOVÁ, Lisa. Sedm a půl kapitoly o mozku. Praha : Slovart 2021

ŠIMEČKA, Martin. Telesná výchova. Bratislava : N Press 2020.