In Finland, students have a 15 minute recess after each 45 minute class. In China, children partake in calisthenics every morning. But in the US, physical education classes are being reduced and many schools are still using the "sit still and listen" model of education.
The research on exercise and cognitive function is clear: The more movement humans engage in, the deeper their capacity to learn, remember, ward off stress and depression, focus, and resolve problems. Seems like a no-brainer (pun intended!) that we should be encouraging our students to get moving but teachers, school leaders and policy makers worry that the loss of academic time will only cause our students to fall farther behind their peers. For decades, studies have proven this untrue. For those of you who love research, check out Dwyer, 1996 and 2001, Donovan and Andrew, 1986, Jensen 2005, and Kempermann, 2002. For those of you looking for more practical implication, see below for a list of benefits exercise affords us.
The Benefits of Exercise on the Brain
1) Enchanced memory function
2) Greater ability to concentrate on one task for longer periods of time
3) Improved mood and less susceptible to depression
4) Greater ability to creatively solve problems
5) Improved ability to handle stress
6) Stronger immune system
Ready to try integrating movement into your day? Movement can be used for movement's sake, to transition, to enhance a lesson, or to help refocus your class. Be deliberate in how you chose your timing and your activity. You don't want to disrupt the students' learning or focus with an ill-timed break. If you find that a few of your students are struggling to maintain focus, let them know that they are free to take a quick walk around the hallway or get some water in order to regroup. Finding ways to incorporate movement into lessons is critical. For instance, when reading aloud, ask students to act out what the characters are doing. Or when learning new words, have students "write" the words in the air making each letter as big as they can.
Ways to Incorporate Movement into Your Day
1) My students loved when we played a game they liked to call "Huge Words". I'd put the kids into groups of four or five, give them a four- or five-letter word and they had to use their bodies to become the letters of the words. This helps with spelling, too!
2) Another favorite of mine is from Responsive Classroom. Have the children sing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean". They start standing up and when they hear the /b/ sound, they sit. Next time they hear the /b/ sound, they stand, and so on. They'll be exhausted by the end!
3) Brain Gym has plently of resources for movement breaks. My favorite is the Double Doodle!
4) Simple morning stretches immediately following Morning Meeting work wonders for ensuring your students are awake and alert.
Be dutiful in getting your students moving and keep track of the changes you notice in your classroom. I promise you'll be pleased with the progress!
Check out the following resources for more information on getting your students moving!
Balfanz, Robert, Oct 10, 2014, Working Together to Improve Learning and Health.
Retrieved from: www.wholechildeducation.org/podcast
Godman, Heidi. "Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills." Harvard Health Review, April 9, 2014.
Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. New York, NY: Association for Supervision & Curriculum, 2005.
Walker, Tim. "How Finland keeps kids focused through free play." The Atlantic, June 30, 2014.