Physical activity and the brain

Why Active Kids Make Better Learners

“Physical activity has dramatic effects on individuals’ physical and mental health,” according to Charles Basch in his report, Healthier Students Make Better Learners.

Put simply, educational outcomes are directly influenced by health.

Physical Activity Recommendations

This, coupled with the knowledge that the majority of school–age students do not meet the CDC guidelines for 60 minutes of physical activity daily, should concern us all. While we pour money into new, innovative, and different perhaps it would be wiser to shore up what we know works: reinstating physical education and physical activity opportunities in schools.

Not only should the physical health risks be a concern, but the findings out of the neurosciences and child development literature continue to make a compelling case for the link between a healthy body and a healthy mind. This literature documents the importance of physical education and physical fitness and their effect on academic outcomes.
Physical activity and the brain infograhic
Physical activity (which leads to fitness) may also improve student physical health and well being. Fitness seems to buffer the deterioration of cardiovascular health, bone health, diabetes, and neurological body systems. Physical fitness and aerobic fitness are also associated with mental fitness and emotional health as well.

Health Benefits of Fitness and Physical Activity

Physical activity affects metabolism and all major body systems. The saying, “A strong mind and a strong body” are now well supported in research. Physical activity affects brain chemistry and cognitive functioning contributing to emotional stability, physical health, and the ability to learn. It is now clear and well supported that physical activity favorably affects cognitive functioning.

Three recent literature reviews conclude that school-based physical activity programs may result in short-term cognitive benefits (Taras, 2005), improve cognitive functioning among children (Sibley & Etnier, 2003), and do not hinder academic achievement (Trudeau & Shepard, 2008). These findings support the case for favorable effects of physical activity or physical fitness on cognitive functioning of youth.

Relationship between Academics and Physical Activity

The CDC report suggested that increased student physical activity and physical fitness can best be achieved through a comprehensive approach (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997) that includes physical education, wise use of recess [lunch] and after school times, co-curricular physical activity opportunities, and bicycling or walking to and from school. The nature and scope of school-based physical activity/education programs will vary with the resources available (e.g., human, physical, and social environmental) and with the level of commitment by school administrators.

School Physical Activity Opportunities

Both physical education and lunch have been found to increase physical activity in children. Quality physical education programs are encouraged to organise learning opportunities to ensure that 50% of the physical education experience is organised around physical activity.

Recess may be another appropriate time to promote physical activity. Research indicates that lunchtime can contribute significantly to children’s overall levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity.

Yet, another type of physical activity opportunities in schools are called “brain breaks.” They are short 5-10 minute breaks within the classroom where students have an opportunity to stretch and move, thus integrating physical activities and academic concepts.

The Learning Connection put out by the Action for Healthy Kids Foundation points out many of the academic benefits and what you need to know to ensure your kids are healthy and ready to learn.

Physical Activity and Mental Health

It’s well known that routine physical activity benefits both body and mind. And there are no age limits. Both children and adults can reap big benefits. A study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explores whether certain factors may help to explain the value of daily physical activity for adolescent mental health. Researchers from the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands looked at two possible explanations for the link between exercise and good mental health. One was positive self image and the other was winning friends. They surveyed 7,000 Dutch students, ages 11 to 16.

Yale University child psychologist Alan Kazdin, the editor of Clinical Psychological Science, says the findings show just how bountiful the benefits of exercise can be. “I think it would be too strong to call it an elixir, but it has the broad effects of something like that,” he says.

Originally posted on the Peaceful Playgrounds website. Reproduced with kind permission from Dr Melinda Bossenmeyer.

Everything I’ve learnt in life I learnt in the playground

I watched a less popular girl, Allison, walk up to a group of four girls who were playing a game of handball. As she approached and asked, “Can I play?” she was quickly rebuffed. “The game is closed,” Janey, the ring leader, announced.

Given the school is a Peaceful Playgrounds school, I was surprised at the response because of the “You can’t say, ‘You can’t play’” mantra. Allison, whose disappointment was obvious, turned to play another game. Fortunately, the playground was filled with alternate game choices and two other handball courts. Allison selected one of those courts and soon was involved in another game. This time she didn’t ask, but rather waited in line by the letter D.

Permission: is it a good idea?

It was an interesting observation for a number of reasons. I began to dissect what happened and why. In the first situation, Allison asked for permission to play. “Can I play?” allowed Janey the opportunity to respond and in fact, reject her request.

In the second situation, she simply stood in line and waited her turn. No one challenged her right to play. She didn’t ask permission but rather followed the rules of the playground and when her turn came she merely stepped onto the court. No one challenged her right to do so.

Entwined with the actions of young children was a lesson. When you act in accordance with the school rules (wait in line and go in when appropriate), that behavior makes rejection less likely.

Exclusion is not always playground bullying

I’ve been working on an online bullying prevention course for schools. This reminded me of what I’ve been writing about the way girls bully. Girls typically get involved with indirect types of bullying, for example: nasty staring, spreading rumours, manipulating friendships and excluding peers. The four girls who turned Allison away all participated in Janey’s decree of “You can’t play.” However, it wasn’t bullying as described, because there was no mention of a power differential. The intent to hurt was questionable. Although it didn’t meet the criteria for bullying, the activity was still hurtful, as evidenced by Allison’s reaction.

Multiple playground markings

Why didn’t Allison remind them of the school rule, “You can’t say, ‘You can’t play’”? I’m not sure. If that was the only handball court, perhaps she would have. This illustrates the importance of painting multiple markings of the same court. When we gathered information about children’s play choices, we observed that children often picked a less preferred game rather than wait in line on a Peaceful Playground.

This scenario is likely played out numerous times on playgrounds all across Australia every day. Below are a few key points that address this situation, relating to some of the philosophies and procedures in the Peaceful Playgrounds Program. The statements below explain some of the rules and procedures and the philosophy behind them.

1. You can’t say, “You can’t play.”

Whether or not a child invokes this rule, it illustrates the notion that all kids get to play all games.

Lanier Elem Painted Courts2. Multiple playground markings

Peaceful Playgrounds advocates painting multiple games with the same marking. For the reason illustrated in the situation above, if children want to play a particular game, they have options.

3. Kids pick an alternative playground game rather than wait in line.

We have found that multiple game markings are important. For example, if all handball courts have lines necessitating waiting in line, we observed that rather than wait in line children select a less preferred game most of the time.

4. Letting children solve problems on the playground.

We have operated under the philosophy that the playground is an opportunity for students to practice what they may face in life. Sometimes, in some situations, people may choose not to engage with certain people. The rejection on the playground or the ability to manoeuvre when faced with rejection is a life skill that needs to be developed. Sometimes the hard reality of life is that we are excluded.

Article originally posted on Peaceful Playgrounds Australia. Reproduced with permission.

Future focused learning in Health and Physical Education

Our current generation of students are the most connected and informed learners we have ever taught. They have access to more information and knowledge at their fingertips than we could ever have imagined. So, how does the new Health and Physical Education curriculum cater for the new generation of students?

The research into future directions in education and health was powerful in informing the development and directions of the new curriculum. The futures research in education suggests that schools will more and more become settings that guide learning with an orientation to developing lifelong learners, rather than settings that simply impart knowledge to create learners who can perform well on a final exam. Teaching within schools will no longer just be the domain of teachers but learning will be shaped by partnerships and connections with knowledge experts in the community. This will see teachers shift from a role of knowledge “keepers” to playing the role of knowledge “brokers” – facilitating access for students to knowledge gained from other sources or experts.

To cater for these shifts in knowledge access the Health and Physical Education curriculum includes a critical inquiry approach that promotes researching, analysing, applying and appraising knowledge in the health and movement fields. This approach seeks to support students to understand that a range of factors shape a person’s ability to be healthy, safe and active and that often these factors are out of an individual’s control. As students explore concepts and issues within the curriculum the content encourages students to question knowledge and test assumptions that we may take for granted to ensure that they are founded on reliable and accurate information.

Research into the future of health care suggests services will move towards a preventive focus and predictive medicine and interventions will become more widespread across Australia. Sources predict that nearly a million people in the United States have already signed up for full genome-scans with the hope of understanding their health better and avoiding the risk factors most relevant to their genes. This projected move to a rising engagement with predictive technologies will signal a dramatic shift. Health and Physical Education has historically focused on teaching students strategies to avoid a generic suite of risky lifestyle behaviours. The new curriculum focuses on developing understanding and skills to be able to make healthy, safe and informed choices about their health based on the information available to them. Health experts have identified the development of health literacy as a key skill for individuals in being able to manage their own health and wellbeing. The curriculum focuses on the development of the following skills within the three dimensions of health literacy:

  • functional – the ability to research and apply health information to respond to a health-related question
  • critical – the ability to selectively access and critically assess health information from a range of reliable sources in order to take action to promote their own or others health and wellbeing
  • interactive – the ability to actively and independently engage with a health issue and to apply new information to changing circumstances.

Taking this research into account the Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education, proposed that a future-focused Australian Health and Physical Education curriculum should:
•    be contemporary, inquiry-based, developmentally appropriate, learner-centred
•    be relevant to the student and the local and global communities with which they identify
•    be informed by a preventive health agenda
•    provide opportunities for developing face-to-face communication and collaboration skills
•    draw on information and communication technologies to enhance learning
•    prepare students to be lifelong learners.

What does this mean for you as a teacher?

The release of the Health and Physical Education national curriculum provides an ideal opportunity for schools to put their current programs under the microscope. It’s important to critically reflect on the programs that you currently deliver in your school and evaluate how effectively they cater for your students as lifelong learners. Some questions that may help direct your reflections include:

  • How can your Health and Physical Education program best equip your students to deal with the day to day challenges they will face now and in the future?
  • How well does your Health and Physical Education program prepare students for life beyond the school walls, both now and after their school years have finished?

In a rapidly changing world, Health and Physical Education will play an important role in preparing young people for the new challenges they may encounter in the future. These challenges include the expectations placed on them as global citizens, the rapidly changing world of work, issues related to food security and bio-security, the role that social media and social connections online will play in their relationships and the broadening level of inequalities experienced between rich and poor.

Don’t stress … there is help out there

We have put together a structured process with accompanying resources for faculty and school teams to revise and renew their school HPE programs in light of the implementation of the new Australian Curriculum for Health and Physical Education.

If your school team is ready to review and renew your programs why not get in touch to find out more about our faculty mentoring packages.


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