How to Get Students Moving for Academic Advantages
Guest article written by Dr. Mark E. Benden, CPE, Chair of the Environmental & Occupational Health Department and the director of the Ergonomics Center at Texas A&M University.
Without a doubt, teachers want the best academic and holistic outcomes for their students.
Sit tight: Science suggests the secret to boosting brain power might be to keep kids moving.
A fascinating study published in the Journal of School Health indicates that when elementary-age children’s lessons incorporated physical activity, their focus improved more than 70 percent. For those who’ve spent years studying the relationship between movement and learning, these findings aren’t surprising. It just further validates what is quickly becoming common knowledge.
As information culled from MEDLINE articles shows, movement naturally increases blood flow, in turn providing the brain with more oxygen. And the activity doesn’t have to include marathon running: Just getting up from a seated position can trigger an 8% uptick in heart rate, flooding the brain with much-needed nourishment to recall — not to mention critically examine — information and instructions.
Regretfully, as these links between learning and moving continue to accumulate from scientific periodicals, many classrooms have remained relatively sedentary throughout the decades. In some cases, they’re even using the same desks for kids as they did for their parents. And when young people get back to their homes in the evening, they continue their tendency toward inactivity, often tethered to technology. It’s a surefire recipe for lost concentration in the classroom — not to mention lower grades and increased absenteeism due to illness.
Luckily, there’s a silver lining: A groundswell of support and momentum is taking building to revolutionize learning from a static (i.e., seated) to an active experience. In other words, the antidote to poor performance could just be the inherent power of motion on memory, creativity, and cognition.
Setting children up for success through movement
What is a classroom but a microcosm of what kids can expect from their future workspaces? With that in mind, many teachers around the globe are beginning to incorporate activity whenever they can so that their students are ready when they enter the corporate world.
After all, today’s workplaces thrive on collaborative environments where employees constantly demonstrate teamwork and collectively run projects. This requires plenty of movement.
As such, some forward-thinking educators and administrators are developing and instituting learning spaces that include flexible furnishings. Children can move desks, chairs, tables, and other equipment effortlessly to promote learning through constant activity. This approach is working to combat everything from lowered test scores to obesity, according to data from ScienceDirect.
When supported by Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (PAAC) guidelines that emphasized activity, classrooms saw a marked improvement — up 6 percent on standardized examinations when compared with non-PAAC counterparts. Three years down the road, the students who engaged in PAAC at least 75 minutes per week had a body mass index that was nearly two points lower than the control peer group.
As director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center and a professor of health sciences, I study the correlation between movement and classroom proficiency.
As a teacher myself, I share common goals with my fellow educators: better classroom management, better student engagement, and improved learning.
After trials and testing in labs and classrooms, we’ve found that students who use standing desks burn 20 percent more calories than peers who sit in traditional seated desks. Their posture and comfort levels also are higher when they use standing desks versus traditional seated versions. On top of that, these students stayed on task and completed those tasks more quickly and accurately.
When tested at the high-school level for a full year, students who worked with standing desks saw a 7 to 14 percent uptick in cognition. And teachers who had access to the standing desks refused to give them up once the studies were complete.
Healthier bodies due indeed help foster healthier minds.
In activity-permissive learning environments, teachers encourage movements like standing, rocking, fidgeting, and walking. We now know how interconnected adequate physical activity is with the ability to focus on difficult cognitive tasks, so promoting an active mind requires an active body.
What could be more worthy of our educators’ time than giving the next generations the ability to ramp up their cognitive abilities while simultaneously awakening their bodies to the importance of staying in motion? In essence, nothing — especially when considering the positive effect it will have on our future economies.
Promoting a thirst for learning and activity
The trick, of course, is turning activity-based learning into a habit that children carry on to adulthood to hopefully cut into the growing rates of preventable conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. Decision makers in the educational arena have the precious opportunity to significantly improve the health, wellness, and intellectual functioning for millions of people by taking just a few small steps in the classroom today.
Adopt a philosophy that furniture isn’t fixed.
Seeing educational furnishings as fluid objects turns them into a huge asset — instead of an obstacle — for both kids and teachers. Utilizing all furniture as a tool not only allows them to accommodate special projects, but also encourages kids to work together. At the same time, it forces young students out of their seats on a regular basis to lessen the likelihood of ennui and cognitive disengagement.
Take breaks consistently, and lead the way.
Children become more restless and inattentive with prolonged seating. Even if standing isn’t an option, movement certainly should be.
Many teachers already add breaks into their lesson plans, simply to allow time between long periods of lecturing. Yet children may not understand how to make the most of those breaks. Urge them not to turn to devices or simply find a new place to sit, but rather to stand up, stretch, and move in some way whenever they have the chance. Even a short walk around the building can pay long dividends.
Motivate children to learn by doing and presenting.
Teachers often say that kids think more creatively when they’re on their feet. One practical way to get youngsters both actively moving and learning something new is by asking them to present ideas to their classmates. This Socratic method of education tends to produce more activity while simultaneously allowing kids to become more engaged in the learning process. It’s a simple (but effective) way to develop a more active learning environment that supports everyone’s needs.
It’s not difficult to see a world where classrooms begin to look more like working pods than lecture halls or meeting rooms. And when all that activity stirs the neural networks of young people, we’ll all be the beneficiaries for decades to come.
Dr. Mark E. Benden, CPE, is chair of the Environmental & Occupational Health Department and the director of the Ergonomics Center at Texas A&M University. An accomplished author, inventor, and engineer, Dr. Benden is the founder of two faculty-led startups that focus on incorporating more movement into classrooms worldwide — PositiveMotion and Stand2Learn, which was recently acquired by Dallas-based VARIDESK.