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By Adrienne Harvitz
3rd Place, Education Article, 2020 NMPW Contest. PE teacher Adrienne Harvitz believes an unused school playground or gymnasium has potential for brain-powering magic.
In a world of sitting at desks, in cars and in front of screens, movement is becoming a rarity for the human body. Adults in the workplace and children in school alike are facing a common threat to their physical, mental and emotional well-being: the sedentary lifestyle.
Throughout history, humans have spent much of our time in motion. We evolved to walk, run, dig, lift, pick and jump. What price are we now paying for this still life? What effects are a lack of exercise having on our brains and bodies, especially those still developing? How can we fight the sedentary trends of these times to preserve our wild right to move and play? How is it that the needs and nature of the human brain and body have been so neglected in our modern lives?
As a physical educator, I have pondered and studied this topic considerably. Thankfully, there is a great array of writing and research out there. As neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki explains, “Exercise is the single most transformative thing that you can do for your brain.” The scientific community agrees that physical activity is the simplest thing humans can do to enhance cognition, mood and other aspects of neurobiology.
The benefits of physical activity on the brain are many. Immediately after physical activity, reaction time, mood and attention can be improved for hours. Levels of good mood neurotransmitters can increase for days. Twenty-plus minutes of cardio, especially in the target heart rate zone, releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates growth of new brain cells, and has been shown on brain scans to stimulate neural activity in many regions of the brain at once (a term called “connectivity”). Over time, those who exercise regularly have a bigger and stronger prefrontal cortex and hippocampus and are less susceptible to neurodegeneration in the aging process.
Studies have also found that specific types of exercise and movement have particular benefits in the classroom setting, boosting children’s moods and enthusiasm, raising student test scores and improving many aspects of cognition and behavior.
Despite all this knowledge, New Mexico lags behind other states when it comes to physical activity in our schools, and our students are suffering from health issues related to inactivity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends children and adolescents do an hour or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily, as well as vigorous-intensity physical activity at least three days a week. That’s considered the baseline amount required for the healthy development of fine and gross motor skills and muscle, maintenance of healthy body mass and composition, and obesity prevention.
From my firsthand experience working in public health and education in New Mexico for more than eight years, I can assure you that most kids are not getting that one hour of physical activity per day. Many kids get just 15 minutes of recess one to two times a day, an hour of PE once a week and no physical activity after school. I’ve seen 120-pound kindergarteners, fourth-graders who can’t push themselves on a scooter, middle-schoolers who cannot shoot a basketball and children of all ages who don’t know how to play any recess games.
School-provided PE and recess alone are not providing kids enough physical activity to meet the CDC’s minimum recommendations. PE classes often evaluate kids based on their ability to participate in team sports, instead of their ability to identify and cultivate lifelong habits for fitness. Adding to the problem, teachers are not educated in how to implement physical activity in their classrooms or throughout the day, or how (and why) to do so specifically to improve students’ ability to learn, focus, and perform on tests and other classroom activities.
Yet there are ways teachers can bring more movement into their instruction for their students’ health and as a tool to enhance learning. In fact, there’s a whole study on this topic, championed by John Ratey, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and longtime physical educator Paul Zientarski, called Learning Readiness Physical Education (LRPE).
LRPE was created in response to the question, “Can we take what we know about the effects of physical activity on cognition to design physical education to enhance learning?” The answer, my friends, is yes we can.
LRPE, an evidence-based body of curriculum and resources, is engaging, individually focused, fitness-based and designed to be properly placed in the school day for improved outcomes in student academic achievement, behavior, attendance and wellness. Among the many outcomes of LRPE are growing brain cells, enhancing eye tracking and balance improvement, improving cognition in reading and math, increasing alertness through cross-lateral movement, boosting student fitness levels and helping manage stress.
While this may sound like a lot to incorporate, there are many simple exercises and activities in LRPE that accomplish all of these goals. Some of these include throwing and catching a ball, gymnastics, tap dancing, shooting or passing a puck, physio-ball training, hitting a ball with a racquet or just walking or jogging laps.
In tests, students who participated in LRPE one to two hours before a reading evaluation — at least 20 minutes of cardio in the target heart rate zone, for a total of 50 minutes of activity including balance, eye tracking and cross-lateral movement — showed a 50 percent improvement in their reading scores. Students who did the same amount and type of LRPE saw a 93 percent improvement in math scores.
LRPE shows that physical activity with at least 20 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic and complex activity improves wellness and primes students’ minds to learn better and faster. Ratey wrote: “The more complex the movements, the more complex the synaptic connections. Even though these circuits are created through movement, they can be recruited by other areas used for thinking. This is why learning how to play the piano makes it easier for kids to learn math. The prefrontal cortex will co-opt the mental power of the physical skills and apply it to other situations.”
So how does a teacher bring these things into the classroom? I called Paul Zientarski myself to find out. He recommended incorporating movement into lessons at intervals coinciding with attention span for the children’s age by child development standards. (Students are only able to stay focused on a given task for as many minutes as they are years old.)
Teachers should think about breaking up lessons with some kind of kinesthetic activity, interaction, or movement at those intervals. Use one- or two-minute “brain breaks” or “fit breaks” — activities not about “learning” but just about playing — at those intervals, then return to seated work afterward.
Teachers should also plan lessons in the most challenging content areas one to two hours after at least 20 minutes of sustained cardio and complex activities, such as a PE class or facilitated recess.
Zientarski recommends adjusting the school-day schedule so difficult topics are presented after currently scheduled recess or PE. Teachers can also plan their own properly placed recess or LRPE lesson in a gym or outdoor space within the school day — making sure students are reaching LRPE goals during this time.
Teachers could create a designated area of the classroom for movement. Breaks in 5-20 minute time periods could be given to individual, small groups or the whole class for movement by choice or in a guided manner.
Also, hallways can be used for throwing and catching, jumping rope while reciting terms to memorize or definitions for a quiz, or walking in lines up and down the hall while reading text. Students can play catch, hula hoop or do squats or lunges while quizzing one another or reciting terms. When not being used, the playground or gymnasium could be a great destination for an impromptu game or just free-movement time.
The possibilities are endless. Knowing the underlying elements that transform play into brain-powering magic is a real game-changer. Some simple toys, clear instructions and structured activities can turn movement into a teacher’s secret toolbox.