Like many parents, I look ahead to the school year with traditional back-to-school nostalgia. September represents the bittersweet end of summer and a fresh start for children and parents alike. What my children and I will miss most about our summer may come as a surprise — we will miss moving. We will miss the outdoor play of summer as we trade it in for indoor classrooms with desks in rows. While I know there will be time for physical education and recess, it won’t be the same. There will simply be too much sitting all day, unless my children are fortunate enough to have teachers who value physical activity.
As a motor development specialist and mother of four young boys, I want parents and teachers to know how very important movement is for children — and how moving more can actually lead to learning more.
It should go without saying that movement, especially in the form of structured exercise, is good for us. Most people associate exercise with physical benefits such as weight management, cardiovascular health, and increased immunity — the list goes on and on. More recently, studies have also shown that increases in physical activity have had positive cognitive effects on academic achievement.
Physical activity improves academic achievement
Emerging research suggests that more physical education, recess, and physical activity can improve academic achievement. In particular, aerobic exercise is most associated with academic achievement. Aerobic exercise has been hailed by experts as “Miracle Grow” for the brain. Specifically, aerobic exercise increases oxygen, blood flow, and glucose to the brain. Aerobic exercise also promotes the production of more brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). BDNF promotes healthy cellular growth in the brain and increases brain plasticity, all of which increases cognition and learning aptitude.
If physical activity can improve learning, then building more movement into the school day makes perfect sense. Of course, this is easier said than done. Many schools struggle to offer physical education frequently enough to meet national standards. And most schools are afraid to offer more recess, at the risk of taking away from academic instruction time. So how can physical activity be effectively incorporated into the school day? Active classrooms!
In a recent review of research, the Centers for Disease Control found “positive relationships between classroom physical activity and indicators of academic achievement, classroom behavior, and cognitive function.” Physical activity in the classroom has been shown to increase cognition, memory, and recall. Perhaps more convincing is the evidence that links increases in physical activity to increases in standardized test scores.
Active classrooms increase daily physical activity
Active or kinesthetic classrooms add movement to the daily classroom routine and go so far as to encourage learning through movement. Successful active classrooms have to do more than incorporate movement into the classroom — movement needs to be part of the classroom culture. Teachers need to invest in purposeful, organized physical activity in the classroom
in order to reap the optimal benefits of exercise on the brain.
In an educational climate in which teachers already have too much to do in too little time, asking teachers to add movement to their daily routine may seem daunting. Teachers and parents alike need to be convinced that adding physical activity to classrooms will result in more focused, better-behaved students who can accomplish even more throughout the school day.
There are a number of emerging research-based programs on physical activity in the classroom. Common themes in these physical activity programs include:
• Adding aerobic physical activity in the morning.
• Scheduling periodic physical activity throughout the day.
• Exercising in intervals.
• Increasing the intensity of physical activity to the target heart rate zone.
Physical activity guidelines for classrooms
When planning the physical activity component for a classroom, the FITT formula (Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type) can be used. The research-based programs suggest a range of protocols that can be adapted to meet the scheduling demands and available resources of each classroom. General classroom physical activity guidelines include:
• Frequency: 3-5 days in a school week
• Intensity: 60%-85% of maximum heart rate. Physical activity in intervals, with some duration in the target heart rate zone
• Time: 10-30+ minutes/day, including 3-5 minute movement breaks. Recommendations include early morning bouts of exercise, followed by movement breaks of a few minutes each during the day
• Type: Aerobic exercise is optimal for brain development.
Most teachers already implement sensory breaks or movement breaks, which are a great start. These breaks are important not just for children with special needs or challenges such as ADHD. Most children can benefit from movement breaks. In fact, many children can benefit from the accommodations often provided for children on Individual Education Plans. Instead of giving a few children a balance disc or stool to sit on, why not make them available for all students? For $12 a disc, every student can reap the benefits of active sitting, without singling out students with special needs. While specialized equipment in the classroom can certainly boost movement throughout the day, there are budget-friendly options as well. Examples of simple, creative, and effective movement breaks can be found at gonoodle.com and brain-breaks.com.
Seats such as a physio/yoga ball, stool, or balance disc (which sits on top of a traditional chair) require a user to sit with proper posture, which involves engaging the core muscles. When students are channeling some of their energy into active sitting, this tends to lead to more attentional focus. Generally speaking, being active stimulates more of the brain-body connection. Even better, physio ball seats can be used for movement breaks with numerous exercises.
Simple strategies for building active classrooms
Don’t just sit around: When students need to be seated, teachers can consider alternative seating such as physio-balls, balance discs, or ergonomic stools. Hokki stools (vs.de/en/hokki/), which come in a variety of sizes, are an excellent choice for schools. Standard desks can also be modified for movement by using resistance bands or rubber bands around the legs of the desk to use as a wiggle bar. Products such as Bouncy Bands (bouncybands.com) and Fidgeting Foot Bands (therapyshoppe.com) get positive reviews.
Stand up: When convenient, students can stand up rather than sit down. The act of standing over sitting burns more calories and equates to more Metabolic Equivalents (METs) per hour, per day. Standing also increases blood flow, oxygen uptake, and muscular fitness. Classroom space can be modified for standing stations. Standing or adjustable desks are available as well.
Walk and talk: When students work in pairs to peer review or have discussions, why not walk and talk? Teachers can encourage movement through walking in the classroom and school building as space allows.
Keep count: When students arrive at school, keep count of their steps using inexpensive pedometers. Tracking steps is a motivating trend that can be incorporated into the classroom and reinforced at home. What better way to learn math than as it relates directly to students’ steps? Parents and teachers can help students set goals, track steps, crunch numbers, chart progress, and more!
Take it outside: When weather permits, take learning outside. Students enjoy the change of scenery and benefit from fresh air. The air outside is more than 10 times healthier than the air indoors. More importantly, outdoor space allows for plenty of gross motor movement.
The next cycle in active classrooms
If a school has the budget or ability to attain grant funding, there are new products designed to increase movement in the classroom. Among my favorite classroom tools are DeskCycles (deskcycle.com). DeskCycles are reasonably priced and highly functional. The primary advantage of DeskCycles is that students are able to be physically active, without detracting from academic time on task. The cycles are quiet and easily portable. Students can cycle while they read, write, listen, or interact.
In my children’s elementary school this year, my colleagues at Westfield State University and I will be studying the impact of DeskCycles on academic achievement and physical fitness. We hypothesize there will be a positive relationship between the increase in physical activity in the classroom and academic and physical measures. Similar to the other research-based programs, our study will use a protocol that includes a morning bout of exercise in the target heart rate zone followed by scheduled movement breaks throughout the day using the DeskCyles.
Active classroom culture
Whether a teacher starts with simple strategies or invests in more significant classroom equipment, incorporating physical activity throughout the day is critical. Once physical activity is woven into the daily routine, it can become part of the classroom culture. Physical activity should become an expectation in the classroom for students, rather than a special occasion. Active classrooms can boost morale and generate motivation for students. If teachers are able to appreciate the connection between exercise and learning, students will, too.
If we rethink teaching and learning to include movement across the curriculum, there are countless practical applications. For instance, the following learning tasks can be done while moving:
• memorization of information
• quick recall of information
• math facts
• subject matter facts (e.g., states and capitals)
Researchers suggest that learning is optimal in the period of time immediately following aerobic exercise. Following a bout of high-intensity aerobic exercise, students are more capable of higher-order learning tasks as well. Over time, teachers can build toward physically active lessons. Moving while learning can solidify understanding, build retention, and reinforce the learning process for students.
Learn more about active classrooms
Active classrooms with opportunities for kinesthetic learning have the capacity to maximize the brain-body connection to help students learn more effectively. To learn more, considering adding these books to your reading list: Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina; Kinesthetic Classroom by Mike Kuczala; and Spark by Dr. John Ratey. Too busy to read the whole book? You can listen to the authors’ presentations on Ted Talks (ted.com).
Consider learning more about how to add physical activity to the classroom through these reputable programs:
Let’s Move in Schools
My hope is that parents will share this article with their children’s teachers and principals as a conversation starter. Parents, teachers, and administrators can delve into the resources provided here to learn more about active classrooms. Knowledge of active classrooms will enable teachers and administrators to adopt the strategies that best complement their classrooms and schools. With more active classrooms, students will be moving more and learning more in no time!
Dr. Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch is an assistant professor in the Movement Science department at Westfield State University, teaching motor development, exercise science, and other sport-related courses.