By Kymm Ballard, EdD | September 13, 2016
Executive Director, SPARK
Ask an educator, “What do you most want for your students?” Chances are the answer will be, “Success.”
The math teacher wants students to master the concepts in the semester’s curriculum. The health education teacher wants students to learn how to establish healthy habits and make good choices about risks. The PE teacher might focus on building sports skills and encouraging a commitment to lifelong physical activity. The principal might address a combination of academic learning and positive social connection.
I’ve worked as an educator, and been working around educators, for a long time. My interest in physical education and healthy students spans my entire career. When I hear educators describe what they see as student success, I want to shout out, “Physical activity is linked to all of these frameworks. It makes sense for you and every other educator to support more physical activity in your students lives!”
And that means making it part of every student’s experience at school, all through the day, every day.
Physical activity is a fantastic contributor to physical health in children and adolescents. It improves strength and endurance. It reduces stress. It helps control weight. It boosts self-esteem.
It also contributes to better academic performance. It enhances concentration, supports better attention and, in some cases, leads to improved standardized test scores.
A lot of schools have cut recess and PE time, shifting their focus to time for academic learning. This is misguided. Children and teens need breaks from the concentration of learning. They need to stand up and get out of their seats. They need to move their bodies, increase their circulation and get some extra blood flowing through their brains. Children and pre-teens especially need time for free play—unstructured time controlled by the kids themselves, not adults. These activities support social, emotional and physical learning.
So if more physical activity is this great, how can we get more of it in our schools?
The actual steps are pretty straightforward. Leadership in the school can support the concept of regular daily activity for all students. Teachers in all subjects can receive guidance on ways to integrate movement into their teaching. They can learn how to lead brief movement activities in their classes—a one-minute stretch, a brisk walk around the room, a 30-second “pat your partner on the back and then trade places.”
They can also learn how to adapt lessons so that being active becomes part of the learning. Stand students in two short lines to compete in a question game. Have them participate in a classroom-wide scavenger hunt to gather information or solve a problem. Have them stand up to write answers on chart paper posted around the room. Just a few seconds of time away from a desk and chair can wake up their brains and boost student engagement.
Classrooms can also be designed to include some standing study areas. Students can be invited to move around over the course of the day so they are on their feet more.
And PE and health education teachers (sometimes different educators, sometimes the same) can collaborate to reinforce the power and rewards of physical activity in their classes, thereby providing leadership for the entire school.
While the steps are clear-cut, making this a policy-in-action can be a bit more difficult. Most schools already feel burdened, carrying many other responsibilities for children’s wellbeing. Administrators are often distracted by all the fires they are putting out. Teachers of academic subjects may not be persuaded there is value in a two-minute marching exercise if the class time they’re given already feels too brief.
How can we thoughtfully and deliberately bring more daily physical activity into our school environments?
I believe the ASCD/CDC’s new emphasis on the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) gives us a useful model. It offers a powerful argument for “greater alignment, integration, and collaboration between education and health to improve each child’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development.” Getting our students more active is an essential part of this alignment and integration. When we collaborate within schools and beyond, in our communities, we can achieve great transformations.
Many schools already have School Health Advisory Councils in place. Usually, these include students, teachers, parents, administrators, other staff and representatives of community programs.
The councils typically come together to assess the school’s health status and identify issues that affect the wellbeing of students and staff. They might examine the physical environment, school climate, student health profiles and problems with bullying, then recommend policies or activities to improve school health. Such councils are natural advocates for building more daily activity into student schedules.
The effort is always easiest when the principal is involved, not necessarily as a leader, but certainly as a clear and present supporter.
Individual educators can approach their School Health Advisory Council with suggestions about creating a school environment that supports regular daily activity. Often, this can be done informally. An educator can speak to someone on the council and talk over this post, for example, or some of the information from the CDC Fact Sheets, or the WSCC material.
If there is no School Health Advisory Council, there’s no time like the present to get one started! One of my key mottos for this process is, “Make people smart before you make them mad!” The evidence about the benefits of physical activity for students is absolutely compelling. Quite naturally, as people learn how productive regular physical activity can be, they are drawn into the effort as advocates and partners. Before you know it, they’ll be asking their students to stand up and walk across the classroom to find a partner to solve a problem.
I’m a big believer in the Coordinated School Health Model, which has now expanded into the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model. My organization, SPARK, offers materials to support these programs. We work toward two main outcomes. The first is environmental change. How do we create school environments that foster healthy eating, offer plenty of opportunities to be physically active and reinforce the practice of wellness?
The second is behavior change. How do we give students the knowledge and skills they need to practice healthful behaviors on and off campus, now and into the future?
Physical activity isn’t the only component that supports the coordinated model. But it is the one that can have an overarching impact on every other component, as well as a school’s academic goals. I hope you’ll consider giving it a try in your classrooms. Share the word with your colleagues and boost the effort in your school. It’s powerfully effective, and it’s a lot of fun!
Look for new resources coming soon to the SPARK website. We’ll be emphasizing the expanded perspectives of the WSCC model.
Kymm Ballard, EdD, is Executive Director of SPARK, a program dedicated to creating, implementing and evaluating research-based programs that promote lifelong wellness. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.