A few years ago, Jerry Seinfeld did a very funny comedy routine about how parents and other adults always use the word “down” to direct kids. Calm down. Slow down. Sit down.
The whole concept of keeping our kids calm and controlled, particularly in the classroom, is now being proven wrong by science. Because of this latest information, classrooms look very different than in previous generations as educators turn to innovative approaches to help children learn. According to the 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation survey “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18-year-olds”, the average U.S. student sits at school for about 4.5 hours a day. Add the hours they sit staring at screens — such as computers, tablets, phones, or television — and we find that our kids are sitting 85 percent of the time they are awake. That sure is a lot of sitting.
Up until now, it was believed that children needed to sit still in order to concentrate and succeed in school. Experts today find that kids are not wired to sit all day long. Instead, they benefit from breaks during which they are moving to help energize their brain and be more productive.
Why Movement is Better
Many studies in recent years helped educators realize forcing children to sit still is not the best approach; instead, moving around enhances their educational experience. A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine found that children who are more active show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed, and perform better on standardized tests than those who are less active.
Nicholas Frankovits saw it in his own classrooms right here in Cleveland and Akron. Currently a professor of geology at the University of Akron, for many years he taught high school science to inner city students. Through his experience trying to engage his students, he developed a unique teaching technique called Inventucation that he describes as “a way for students to learn in a hands-on manner without being glued to their seats.”
When he entered the classroom in the beginning of the year, the students were bored, lethargic, and had no self-confidence. By providing them with creative problem-solving activities that got them out of their seats and directly interacting with science and engineering tools and objects, the students thrived.
“These projects got students out of their seats almost every day to see, touch and do. You can’t build something unless you really understand it physically,” he explains.
Movement breaks in the classroom also help address childhood obesity and the many other health concerns about children not getting enough physical activity. As we know, extensive medical evidence shows that regular physical activity is related to lower body fat, greater muscular strength, stronger bones, and improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic health. It also helps reduce anxiety and depression.
Changes in Classrooms to Encourage Movement
Educators are beginning to look for alternatives to the current classroom environment to improve how children learn. More and more schools are bringing into the classroom active learning styles, including movement breaks, standing desks, and yoga ball seats.
- Movement Breaks
I don’t know about you, but my kids won’t stop talking about GoNoodle. Now used in more than 60,000 elementary schools in the U.S., it is one of several creative online programs that teachers are using to give their students active breaks throughout the school day. The idea is that kids need time between lessons to move around and give their mind a rest.
The unique aspect about these types of programs is that they are not intended to be focused solely on exercise. Instead, they are aimed to entertain the students, while at the same time getting them moving. For example, GoNoodle videos have kids running along their desks through a virtual obstacle course or following along with dance moves. The kids are laughing and having a blast without even realizing they are exercising.
- Standing Desks
Another new trend in classrooms to encourage movement is standing desks. These are raised desks
that can be adjusted to each child’s height. Standing desks have been proven to be beneficial to children from both health and learning perspectives. A report in Pediatrics reviewed eight studies showing how standing desks in classrooms decreased sitting time by about an hour each day. Some of the studies also found that this improved the students’ behavior.
Next, a study in the International Journal of Health Promotion and Education published by scientists at Texas A&M found that students who used standing desks were more engaged in the classroom than those who sat during class. Nearly 300 children in second through fourth grade were observed during the school year. Their engagement level was measured by behaviors like answering a question, raising their hand, or participating in discussions. Researchers found a 12 percent rise in engagement by students using standing desks, which adds up to an extra seven minutes per hour of effective instruction time.
Frankovits found that students thought better when they were standing, so he always encouraged them to stand up and move around the classroom.
“There is something about walking around that gets creative juices flowing,” he says. “It’s more stimulating. When they are up and about, they are more energetic and have more ideas. My advice is to let kids breathe. Don’t corral them in. Give them freedom to think and experience what they are working on.”
Standing desks are becoming so popular now that organizations focusing on their benefits and use are sprouting up. Stand Up Kids and JustStand.org are both great resources to learn more about this effective classroom option.
- Yoga Ball Seats
Yoga balls also are rolling into more classrooms. They stabilize the core, promote better posture, and
allow students to move and bounce around a bit at their work station when they feel antsy. Kids can essentially get a mini-work- out just by sitting on the ball while they do their work. According to an article in California Educator, teachers have noticed that the yoga balls decrease unwanted movement, while students’ attention spans have risen. The children are thrilled because they have more freedom to move around.
What Parents Can Do
Some school districts have not yet added these inventive movement options to their curriculum for
various reasons such as funding and time constraints. It may take parents advocating in order to push schools to bring these options into the classroom.
There also are several ways that parents can incorporate movement into their children’s lives outside of school. When it’s time to focus on homework, it’s important for parents to be mindful that their kids have been sitting for much of the day.
Sarah Groves, M.Ed., LPCC-S, mental health therapist in the Executive Functioning Skills Building Program at Akron Children’s Hospital, works with families to identify simple ways to add movement to the children’s day.
“The more a child moves, the more engaged they are and the more they want to do and learn. Movement absolutely leads to better cognitive ability and emotional health,” she says.
Groves suggests finding small activities to sprinkle in some movement, even if it’s just a trip to the bathroom, kicking legs around at the desk, or playing with a fidget toy.
By incorporating some simple movement breaks both at home and at school, children will be more successful overall be- cause, as Groves explains, “The reality is, if we don’t find a way for them to move, then they will find inappropriate ways to move. Let’s give them healthy ways to regulate themselves throughout the day rather than having them end up with extreme ups and downs.”