The grades are in, and they’re not great: D-, D-, F, D+.
Those are the marks given by the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance in its 2016 report card for American children in the respective areas of overall physical activity, sedentary behaviors (based mainly on screen time), active transportation (biking or walking to school), and physical activity in school. It’s not a report card you’d want to bring home.
We all realize that kids aren’t getting enough exercise—numerous reports document the soaring rates of childhood obesity. The NPAP Alliance says that less than half of those between the ages of 6 and 11—and less than 10 percent of adolescents—get a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least five days per week. And a new report in the journal Preventive Medicine found that by age 19, the average young person is as sedentary as a 60-year-old.
“Movement is a vanishing art,” says Michelle Gay, author of Brain Breaks for the Classroom. “It’s really missing from our education and from our culture.”
The good news, if we can get there? Physical activity can have a hugely positive effect on students’ performance and behavior in the classroom. An Illinois physical education task force found positive associations between exertion and academic performance, with benefits including improved concentration, response accuracy, reading comprehension, and task completion.
“Movement bumps up effort,” says Eric Jensen, author of Teaching With the Brain in Mind. “If you’ve been sitting down all day, there’s inertia. But if you get kids up and moving, it’s easier to get them raising their hands and working hard and asking questions.”
Integrating movement into your classroom may be easier than you think. The teachers and experts we talk with below have a raft of creative solutions to weave physical activity into your curriculum—from early elementary through the middle school grades.
Grades K-2: Little Champions
“In my classroom, there’s movement all day,” says Fern Love, a kindergarten teacher in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. “We never sit down unless we dance our way down. And we don’t stand up unless we dance our way up. And we don’t pick up a pencil until we do the magic song and dance that allows your hand to hold a pencil!”
In kindergarten, Love says, “everybody is a kinesthetic learner,” and so she seeks out as many ways as possible to incorporate movement into her instruction. For example, kids in her class use cut-up pieces of pool noodles as “magic sky writers” to practice forming their letters in the air. When they learn about the calendar, they jump from one day to the next (the days are written inside circles on the floor).
Becky Wimmer, a first-grade teacher in York, Pennsylvania, tells her students that “a moving body has a working brain.” When they practice counting, they perform a new action every 20 numbers—driving race cars, paddling kayaks, or picking apples. Wimmer also incorporates yoga and GoNoodle videos (see sidebar) to give kids brain breaks throughout the day.
“It promotes camaraderie and classroom community,” Wimmer says of the exercises. “They’re having fun together, and they’re enjoying it. It’s okay to have time when you’re just moving around and having fun. I don’t feel like every single second has to be content-driven, when they are working so hard for you the rest of the day.”
Grades 3-5: Movers in the Middle
Thomas Armstrong, author of The Power of the Adolescent Brain, suggests finding creative ways to transform what were previously pen-and-paper tasks into activities that get kids moving around the room. “If you’re teaching about Lewis and Clark, turn the classroom into the Oregon Trail and take them on a journey,” he says. And when possible, Armstrong adds, teachers should combine curricular topics with getting kids walking outdoors—in settings that naturally lend themselves to lessons about weather, history, or literature. “There are countless ways of doing this,” he says.
Jennifer Battista, a sixth-grade reading teacher in Baltimore County, Maryland, previously worked with kids in grades 3 through 5. In addition to building in exercise breaks, she found small ways to incorporate movement into her regular lessons. “When we broke words into syllables, we would do jumping jacks instead of clapping, just to move a little bit,” she says.
Jensen points out that, in addition to improving attention spans, exercise can help kids manage their moods. “Doing movement that de-stresses students is very beneficial for learning,” he says, suggesting activities like stretching and tai chi. “At the opposite end are kids who show up lethargic. Quicker movements can energize them. You want to pump up blood flow.” He suggests routines like having kids touch all four corners of the room, a spot on the floor, and three different chairs before returning to their seats.
Grades 6-8: Adolescent All-Stars
Physical activity is just as important for preteens and teenagers as it is for younger kids, says Armstrong, but some teachers are more likely to emphasize a “sit at your desk” model for older students. “Physical activity is important all the way down the line,” he says. “The problem is, as the grades get higher, the exercise gets lower.”
Desiree Daring teaches sixth-grade math at Spark Academy—a charter school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that emphasizes physical fitness, both through robust P.E. offerings and by giving kids the opportunity to move around during lessons. Almost every day, Daring breaks up her 70-minute math blocks with three- to five-minute “brain boosts.” Some days, kids do boot camp exercises; other days, Zumba.
“When they have an opportunity to let that excess energy out, they’re able to come back and focus,” Daring says.
Battista breaks up her academic blocks by taking students into the hallway, where they do squats and pass around four-pound medicine balls.
With older kids, teachers can build in opportunities for them to move around independently when they need a release. Some teachers allow students to stand up and silently stretch, or to swap out their chairs for exercise balls or their regular desks for standing ones.
Battista keeps three resistance bands on hand, and allows students to take them to their desks and quietly perform exercises like bicep curls. She says the movement adds fun into the school day, when students might sit for up to six hours. “I like doing it, too,” she says. “It clears my mind.”
Photo: Skynesher/Getty Images