By Craig Valency, MA, CSCS
For the last few years we have been imploring kids to put down the gadgets, get active, move more, and eat less. Rising childhood obesity rates and plummeting youth fitness levels have raised the alarm. The solution seems simple enough.
But there’s a dilemma…
Schools are so focused on standardized testing and academic success that physical education and recess have been put on the back burner.
The irony, however, is that more time spent moving, playing, and exercising has actually been shown to improve attention, behavior, and the ability to learn and retain knowledge – not to mention the side benefit of improved fitness and health!
Finland is a great example of the success of this counter-intuitive strategy.
Finland mandates 15 minutes of outdoor play for every 45 minutes of classroom time, with students getting at least 75 minutes of outdoor play per day. Additionally, the amount of academic testing and homework has been greatly reduced.
Many US schools, on the other hand, mandate 100 minutes of physical education… per week! Homework, classroom time, and academic testing have been increased in an effort to help close the achievement gap and make our kids more competitive in the information age.
The result: In 2014 the US ranked 26th out of 34 countries in math, 17th in reading and 21st in science. During this same time period, Finland was ranked #1 in science, and #2 in both Math & reading (Musolf, 2014).
Graham, Holt/Hale, and Parker authors of Children Moving: A Reflective Approach to Teaching Physical Education (2013) discuss numerous studies showing the connection between physical activity and increased academic performance. A few prominent examples include:
- A study on third graders, which concludes that integrating physical activity within the school day led to increases in academic achievement (p. 679).
- A study where after just 20 minutes of moderate treadmill walking versus no exercise for 20 minutes, preadolescents scored a grade level higher in a reading comprehension test (p. 680).
- And finally, a study where children who increased physical activity four-fold with a 14-week physical education program demonstrated improvements in fitness, academic performance, and behavior (p. 680).
A 9-year prospective intervention study from Sweden showed that daily physical education in school improved both motor skills and school academic performance (Ericsson & Karlsson, 2012). This longitudinal study compared two groups of children from the time they were 7 years old until 16 years old when they left compulsory school.
The control group of 91 students engaged in the normal amount of physical education in school, which was comparable to U.S. standards, of 2 days per week for 45 minutes per session. The intervention group of 129 students participated in PE class 5 days per week for 45 minutes per session, and for those students with motor skill deficits one hour per week of adapted motor skill training was added. The students were all assessed based on a validated motor skills test as well as on their grades in Swedish, English, math, PE, and the proportion of students who qualified for upper secondary school.
At the end of 9 years there were no motor skill deficits in 93% of students in the intervention group compared to 53% in the control group! The average acceptance rate for Swedish students to secondary schools is 88% and decreasing each year. The control group achieved a similar rate of acceptance at 89%. The intervention group, however, had a 96% rate of acceptance, despite the fact that the control group had better reading ability scores at the start of the study.
So how is it possible that more time spent moving and less time spent “learning” results in better grades?
You see, movement is never just a physical act; it is a physical expression, or outcome, of cognitive strategies to solve problems. When learning fundamental or complex movements in the context of physical education, sports, recreation, or free play, it “…is an active learning process intricately interrelated with cognition. Movement skill learning cannot occur without the benefit of higher thought processes” (Gallahue, 2003, p. 104).
Learning is a process that involves the integration of both sensory and motor skills (Gallahue, 2003). Children, therefore, learn best when more of their senses are involved. When kids play, explore and solve problems, especially when outdoors in nature, they are forced to use all their senses to navigate this unpredictable and ever changing environment.
In a review of research on the acquisition of intellectual and perceptual-motor skills, Rosenbaum et al., (2001) concluded that all knowledge is “performatory” and that the ‘skills of mind’ and ‘skills of eye, ear, and muscle’ are fundamentally similar” (p. 454).
A finding Rosenbaum cites to support this fact is that coordination and timing seem to be required for intellectual as well as perceptual-motor skills (p. 464). Rosenbaum also points to the evidence that across animal species, more advanced intellect is associated with a greater facility of motor behaviors such as tool making. This fact has led to the hypothesis that, “…the evolution of brain areas credited with the development of language (e.g. Broca’s area) may have paved the way for complex behavioral sequencing” (p. 465)
Current research points to the fact that exercise directly impacts the ability of the brain to process and retain new information (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008). A common concern in schools today, with the emphasis on learning the academic basics and passing standardized tests, is that physical education classes would take away valuable time from the teacher’s already limited time to prep their students to pass the tests.
Classroom teachers are understandably concerned as they are also judged by how well their students do on these tests. Any time taken from an already tight schedule is therefore, seen as a threat. In a study reported by Graham et al., (2013) it was found that doubling the amount of physical education time allocated in the course of a school week did not interfere with standardized reading or math scores (p. 680).
Tony Schwartz discussed the basic human needs that must be satisfied in order to maximize performance in all realms of life in his book, The Way We’re Working isn’t Working (2010). He talks about the importance of renewal with the four key factors being, nutrition, fitness, sleep, and rest.
Schwartz asserts that, “Our physical capacity is foundational, because every other source of energy depends on it.” (p. 11) He highlights exercise for its importance in increasing work capacity and as a means of calming emotions and quieting the mind, especially in the middle of a workday, and in our case, school day. Schwartz believes therefore, that exercise in the middle of a day, especially after a period of intense work, is a powerful form of rejuvenation.
The idea of stepping back from academic work with an activity break to improve performance is understandably counterintuitive, but the evidence is overwhelming that this will indeed result in improvements, both in terms of being physically and mentally renewed, but also by directly increasing the processing power of the brain.
Dr. John Ratey has made an impressive case for this in his important book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008). He details the results of the latest research in neural science for how and why exercise directly improves cognitive ability.
One of the star players of the “body/ brain connection” is a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factors, or BDNF. BDNF builds and maintains the brain’s cell circuitry, and is abundantly found in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with learning and memory. According to Ratey, it “…nourishes neurons like fertilizer.” (p. 39)
An enriched environment increases synaptic (as well as myelin) plasticity resulting in more neural connections in the brain. BDNF has been found to enhance synaptic plasticity by increasing signal strength and improving the function and longevity and health of neurons (Ratey, 2008, p. 40). With exercise BDNF is “unleashed” according to Ratey (p. 51).
Different types of exercise have different effects on the brain that complement each other.
Aerobic exercise can improve executive function, or the ability to manage cognitive processes such as working memory, reasoning, problem solving, task switching, inhibition, and planning and execution.
Perceptual-motor tasks are the foundation of coordination as well as the fundamental and complex movement skills. It has been shown that sensory rich coordination activities can significantly increase BDNF production in the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor movements, but has also been linked to thoughts, attention, emotions, and social skills (Ratey, 2008, p. 41).
Ratey concludes that aerobic exercise elevates neurotransmitters, increases blood flow and spawns new cells, while complex skill development, “puts all that material to use by strengthening and expanding networks.”
As the movements increase in complexity so too does the development of synaptic connections. This was evidenced by a study highlighted by Ratey (p. 56) in dancers, that showed moving to an irregular rhythm, as opposed to a regular rhythm, improved brain plasticity to a higher degree. And most importantly, although these new neural circuits were created as a result of increased movement, they can be recruited by the brain for mental processing as well (p. 56).
As you can see play, exploration, movement, and exercise are key, not only to health and fitness, but to maximizing children’s ability to learn and succeed both in and out of the classroom.
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We’d love to hear from you. What are some of your experiences and strategies in incorporating more movement throughout the day with your kids? How can we as a society do more to get this message across and make systemic changes?
Ericsson, I., & Karlsson, M. K. (2012). Motor skills and school performance in children with daily physical education in school – a 9-year intervention study. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 24(2), 273-278. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01458.x
Gallahue, D., & Cleland Donnelly, F. (2003). Developmental Physical education for all children (Fourth ed.). Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics.
Graham, G., Holt/Hale, S. A., & Parker, M. (2013). Children moving: A reflective approach to teaching physical education (9th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Musolf, D. (2014, February 19). Does outdoor play make kids smarter? – San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved from http://www.mercurynews.com/bay-area-living/ci_25181071/does-outdoor-play-make-kids-smarter?source=infinite-up
Ratey, J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (First ed.). New York, New York: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group.
Rosenbaum, D. A., Carlson, R. A., & Gilmore, R. O. (2001). Acquisition of intellectual and perceptual-motor skills. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 453-470. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.453
Schwartz, T., Gomes, J., & McCarthy, C. (2010). The way we’re working isn’t working: The four forgotten needs that energize great performance. New York, NY: Free Press.