Get Children to Pay Attention and Achieve More – by Using Physical Activity

Get Children to Pay Attention and Achieve More – by Using Physical Activity

       The children in most of the primary grade classes I observe spend hours –yes, hours– at their desks doing seatwork, or sitting on the carpet for teacher-directed lessons. I have often thought that most adults could not sit for this long and still be able to concentrate. I just came across a research study that confirms what seems to be common sense– that physical exercise can improve children’s attention and help their academic achievement.
       Researchers at the University of Illinois studied the effects of having 9 year-old children take a test after either resting or briskly walking for 20 minutes. The researchers measured the brain activity of the children and found that those who did the physical exercise were better able to filter out extraneous stimuli – in other words, better able to pay attention and act appropriately.
       Next the researchers tested the same children on academic achievement tests in spelling, reading, and math. The reading results showed improvement after the exercise break – more than the math and spelling tests which were done after the reading test. Apparently, the closer the timing of the test was to the exercise break, the greater the benefit. The researchers plan to study more about the timing effects of physical activity. This research appeared in  the journal Neuroscience. You can read more about the study here.
       In the current education environment in which children are pushed to learn more and more skills in less time, it can be tempting to just keep children working longer. Hopefully this study will help inspire you to try giving children more physical breaks. Here are some suggestions for integrating physical activity into the daily routine:

  • Go for a walk: Take the children for a brisk walk around the school neighborhood. In addition to the benefit of the exercise, this can be a learning experience by stimulating language, observational skills, and content knowledge. Notice the leaves, trees, and other plants. Observe the environmental print. Take digital photos and create a neighborhood book. Count the cars. Make a map of the neighborhood and give children a printout to refer to during the walk. Visit neighborhood businesses that might be close enough to the school.
  • Use Music and Movement: Check out classroom songs from the Mosaic Project or teaching tips for movement activities from Leah Davies. Check out the article on Movement and Dance in the Inclusive Classroom. Visit a preschool classroom or ask a preschool teacher for some ideas for incorporating songs and dance into your group times (when did we get the idea that only preschoolers should do songs and movement?)
  • Integrate Physical Movement into Lessons. Here are some suggestions for activities from the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. Ask your phys ed teacher for other suggestions, or to find out what activities the children have been doing in class.
  • Advocate for Recess: Be sure your voice is heard when your school or district makes decisions about recess. Educate parents about the value of exercise and encourage them to speak up. Too many schools are keeping children inside the building during “recess” periods – they need to be outside moving. Here’s an article from NAEYC on The Value of School Recess and Outdoor Play and a review of research on the importance of recess during the school day.

Share in the comments your suggestions for other ways to incorporate physical exercise into the daily routine. What have you found works?