Moving for Academic Excellence

Moving for Academic Excellence

Researchers say frequent physical activity can lead to success in school.

Inside an elementary school classroom in Bethesda, Md., a class of third grade students is divided into small groups and given a task: to cross a desert using a limited supply of tools that often include a jump rope, a foam noodle or a scooter. Their mission is to devise a plan to cross the desert without touching the sand.

This classroom exercise at Norwood School requires cohesive collaboration, quick analytical skills and, most of all, creative physical movement.

“This type of activity is so much more than who has the most points on the scoreboard or how to kick a football,” said Jane Martens, physical education coordinator at Norwood School. “It shows the direct relationship between movement and academic success, particularly when it comes to focus. Twenty minutes is long enough for little ones to sit and focus on academics. After that they need movement to refocus their attention.”

Resources for Movement Activities

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“10 Simple Ways to Encourage Physical Activity in the Classroom.” These suggestions do not require equipment and are easy to incorporate throughout the day. Visit http://www.yourth...">www.yourtherapyso....

Compiled by Ivy Beringer, Ph.D, Northern Virginia Community College

Martens and other educators and researchers cite substantial evidence that physical activity can boost academic performance, including grades and test scores. In fact, many say the recent trend of sacrificing physical education for the sake of academics is counterproductive.

“Unfortunately, with an increased focus on academic standards of learning and budget dilemmas, physical education and outdoor play have often been among the first things to be cut,” said Ivy Beringer, Ph.D, assistant dean, early childhood education and substance abuse, Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. “Based on research findings this appears to be counterproductive to the development of the whole child. Even when there is limited time in the daily schedule for physical activity and outdoor play, teachers can engage children in classroom activities designed to get them moving.”

Experts say aerobic exercise has the greatest effect on academic performance, and elementary school students benefit most from being physically active.

“Some of the largest cognitive benefits were linked, in order of importance, with mathematical achievement, IQ and reading achievement, all critical components of the standardized testing movement,” said Dominique Banville, Ph.D., director, division of health and human performance at George Mason University in Fairfax. “Physical education is the only subject in school specifically dedicated to not only make students move during class time, but also to provide them with knowledge that will allow them to be active outside of school.

“Based on the most recent research, the more active we can get students within a day, the better prepared they will be to concentrate on these math problems or that text they need to read or that essay they need to write.”

The effect is physiological as exercise increases one’s energy level, increasing one’s capacity for cognitive activity. “Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and has been shown to increase one’s ability to focus,” said Beringer.

The lessons that students learn from physical education are life-long and extend beyond an elementary school spelling test or a middle school science project.

“In addition to promoting concentration in the classroom, it gives children an opportunity to develop competence in using their growing bodies,” said Christine Pegorraro Schull, Ph.D., professor, early childhood education, Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. “Everyone needs to learn how to run, stretch, climb, be agile and use rules in a group. In a fundamental way, it teaches children to not be sedentary.”

ONE SOLUTION for a lack of time or space for activity is melding it with academic subjects.

“Teachers and school leaders need to see movement and play more through an interdisciplinary lens,” said Glenn Whitman, director, Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning and girls’ varsity soccer coach at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Md. “Teachers need to recognize that regardless of the length of a class period, students need to move.”

“Simple solutions are to have students move among different workstations in class or to collaborate with their peers while standing up,” Whitman added. “Students can recreate the movements of historical battles. Before an assessment, students can do some jumping jacks or stretches, which elevate dopamine levels in the brain and have been shown to lead to increased academic performance. Building movement into class is only limited by the level of a teacher’s willingness to be creative.”

Parental involvement is critical, say educators, particularly in schools where physical education is limited. For example, parents can suggest ideas for brief movement activities that are interspersed with academics, volunteer to lead such activities or form focus groups to brainstorm ideas to increase movement.

“Movement is so important that parents need to be more vocal about it,” said Martens. “Parents need to be informed about what they’re losing when they take away physical activity and movement.”