The absence of physical activity as a regular part of every-day life provides a significant barrier to effective learning. Students who complete forty minutes of extracurricular sport a day are more inclined to have higher levels of academic improvements than those who don’t.
I recognise this from a personal perspective. Without regular exercise breaks from work, I find it very difficult to learn or make progress. Whilst it is not the sole duty of schools to instil a love of and value in movement, these lifestyle habits must be challenged.
We need movement to activate our brains and hence stimulate learning. But are our classrooms getting in the way?
As Professor Guy Claxton, in his book Intelligence in the Flesh, puts it, “‘We design law courts and classrooms in which physical movements and reactions are treated as disruptions, subversive of the serious work of the mind – yet some people think better when they are moving. Why do we make children sit still if intelligence benefits (as it does) from physical movements and gestures?”
The evidence to suggest children and young people who are aerobically fit have improved brain function, higher academic achievement scores and superior cognitive performance is compelling. Not to mention the importance of physical activity for wellbeing.
A number of blueprints for Active Schools have existed for some time and there is some progress in primary schools thanks to the Primary PE and Sport Premium. However, I believe a lot more could and should be done in all schools. Fostering physically active lifestyle habits is a priority for all young people. This will have the knock-on effect of improved learning, progress, attainment and hence achievement in school and in life.
However, home and societal factors influence heavily on these lifestyle habits. It is therefore important to take a holistic and multi-agency approach to tackle this barrier to success. It is not simply a concern for physical educators or in fact schools in isolation.
Zero Hour PE
Perhaps the most compelling evidence to counter the norm of starting the school day with literacy and numeracy comes from Naperville District with the ‘Zero Hour PE’ programme. The immediate cognitive benefits of exercising increases BDNF brain level (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and increased learning capabilities are evidenced by Professor John Ratey and many subsequent ones across California and internationally.
This is captured in his book SPARK, and he has gone on to explain that “exercise turns our brains on” and “actually grows brain cells”. Integrating physical activity into the classroom leads to improved engagement and concentration, something I have seen first-hand. This has ranged from a simple brain break in class to venturing outside of the classroom to learn. Why not take a look at CLASSPAL for some simple ideas?
Just do it
Exercise improves the circulation of nutrient-rich blood to the brain and increases the creation of mitochondria. It is no surprise then that we feel more alert and can concentrate better after a workout.
If increasing the heart rate regularly enhances neurogenesis (the ability to grow new brain cells) it seems ludicrous that school leaders and teachers do not all already integrate more structured physical activity into the school timetable.
However, who can blame them when the accountability measures and pressures force a focus elsewhere. Perhaps the new Ofsted inspection framework will also recognise the value of this gatekeeper to both learning and wellbeing?
Time to move
Exercise helps us to concentrate, think and to remember. It also feeds into our general health and wellbeing, improving our mood and reducing stress. There is no evidence to suggest integrating exercise into the classroom habits of students has any negative impact on learning. So, what have we got to lose?
Think about what you can do in the classroom to energise students and prevent them from sitting for too long. Look at your daily routines and introduce a culture of movement across your school day.