Imagine your toughest class decides to be on point one day. The students are alert, smiling and ready for the lesson ahead. The rambunctious boys are calm and in their seats. The usually distracted are focussed and all points are connecting for the students that usually struggle. What a dream day that would be. What if that became your normal day? How much could be done and achieved if only the students could be that ready to learn? What if the key was as simple as a walk around campus for the whole class prior to class or a quick round of jumping jacks? It can be that simple. The link between exercise and learning is gaining support and it makes sense why something as simple as a few minutes of exercise can make the difference in a student’s ability to focus and learn. The student that is full of energy has had time to get that out of their system. The sleepy student is now full of energy and the distracted kid has the “runner’s high” of endorphins helping them to focus. Students are then building new brain cells and are able to learn at a higher rate than before. At least that is what is possible according to Dr. John Ratey, a Harvard Medical psychiatrist, that has put his experiences and studies into a first book titled, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain and his new book Go Wild! In Spark he details several examples where depression, ADHD, dyslexia and greater attention issues have been overcome with dedicated exercise;
“What I find so compelling is the strong relationship between movement and attention. They share overlapping pathways, which is probably why activities like martial arts work well for ADHD kids— they have to pay attention while learning new movements, which engages and trains both systems.”
Ratey, John J. (2008-01-10). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (p. 152). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
It is unlikely that a few minutes of exercise will drastically transform a student’s behavior or their ability to do long division but if it is a consistent the effects can be great. Whether it be a break in a lesson or learning while active, it is easy to see how that movement can have a positive effect on a student’s behavior and learning. Even inserting a 15 minute period a day would alleviate some of the extra energy issues and would add up to a substantial increase in activity over the week. Every kid can benefit from that at the least but if new brain cells are being created in that process then there is a lot more to gain than just movement.
If his patients have seen those kinds of results imagine what can be done in the classroom. Some schools have taken steps to make this more than just a passing learning fad. Desks with pedals have been put into classrooms and whole classrooms replaced with exercise equipment to help spark this new focussed learning. Some others are trying PE before difficult classes or extra activity for kids that struggle the most and have been getting results.
Exercise in My Class?
Does this mean that you have to toss your desks and change the schedules completely? No, not necessarily. You can do little tests, experiments, to see how your students perform when introducing activity in the lesson or just before a lesson. Students can practice spelling words or other facts while doing jumping jacks, hopping or just simple moving. That added element can help cement those concepts into their brains. Plus, it helps to break up the lesson into chunks that they can manage. If their attention span is only 15 minutes then you can take advantage of the chance to give them that brain break but also connect the concepts before and after that break. Linnea Lyding in Education Update shares some easy ways to incorporate exercise into the lesson but having a list of exercises and a way to pull them randomly is at the essence. Rolling a die and getting a one could be jumping jacks or math facts practice that results in perfect squares would cause the hokey pokey. There are so many easy ways to incorporate a little exercise into a lesson.
Keep it Simple
Even simple things can make a difference. I had a teacher in high school that broke up every class with a “brain break’ where we do something goofy and requiring movement before we jumped back into our literature book. It was so much easier to get through the second half of the class, it was nice to get out of our seat and I never had better grades in my Literature classes than that year. I also always did better in class after lunch, having just played basketball for a half-hour. I figured it was just because I was happy to be playing but that was just as good reason for doing better in class as the exercise. No matter what the reason the simple benefits are clear and if we consider the effects that Dr. Ratey describes then it worth testing out. Exercise would likely impact students at least as much if not more than “mindfulness,” meditation or any of the other fads that have creeped into the classroom to save the world. It deserves at least the same attention and the students will be in better health if not better “shape” for learning.
Try it out yourself
I have long been a fan of the standing desk and the pedal desk (as seen above) because sitting all day is not good, especially as we do more gazing at screens. Changing our body’s position helps us to switch mindsets, refocus attention and get our heart rate moving. I do my best work at night and my pedals ($20) give me far more of a boost than coffee does so it has been an easy adaptation to my work flow and allowed me to be far more productive when I would otherwise be too sleepy or injecting caffeine. For those that know me, coffee is my thing so to get a better jolt and be more productive on simple exercise is saying something. Imagine what you can do at home and what your students can do in class if you tried out something simple and added it to your routine.
I said, “Imagine what your students can do,” and when you are done imagining it; implement it. Pick one way that you can have the kids moving about in the middle of a lesson, during a lesson, prior to a lesson and then actually do it. Don’t go overboard as big changes don’t hold very long but take small steps and see what works. Will a walk around the playground before your first class be most beneficial? Would brain-breaks involving movement be key to helping students refocus? Would exercising while learning help students retain basic facts or spark discussion? Would moving the most difficult class to the period right after PE be the best change? Try them all out for yourself and see what works. Just 15 minutes a day and you may just have that dream day after all.
Tell me about what you are going to implement this week. Leave a comment below.