Districts find innovative ways to work exercise into the school day
Wellness centers outfitted with elliptical bikes, treadmills, and climbing walls. Indoor fitness trails and an expanded outdoor water sports program featuring sailing, kayaking, and snorkeling. Videos showcasing short fitness workouts available online and on a districtwide TV station. And coming soon, a middle school geocaching program that will send students outdoors with GPS navigation tools.
These are just some of the innovative ways that the Miami- Dade County Public Schools—the nation’s fourth largest —is encouraging its nearly 350,000 students to get up and be more physically active.
With its goal of “educating the whole child,” the district is committed to making “the best programs for every child in every subject, not only in the four core, but in the arts and physical education as well,” says Jayne Greenberg, Miami-Dade’s director of physical education and health literacy.
And with a promising body of scientific research indicating a strong relationship between physical activity, brain function, and academic performance, increasing and improving physical education classes and physical activity opportunities in its schools has become a key priority, says Greenberg: “It used to be seen as a frill. It’s no longer a frill.”
Concerns about the nation’s childhood obesity crisis also are driving the push to up the physical activity quotient in the school setting. Currently, one in three children and adolescents in the U.S. is considered overweight or obese; 17 percent or 12.7 million are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Children and teens who are obese are at increased risk of being obese as adults, putting them at greater risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.
The health crisis “has brought a new light to the benefits of physical activity for everyone, so a quality physical education is now more valued by administrators, teachers, and parents,” says Mark Manross, a former PE teacher and executive director of PE Central, a website that provides information for health and physical education teachers.
High-quality programs don’t look like the PE many adults remember from their childhood, Manross says. Programs in which one student is active while the rest of the class stands around and watches have fallen out of favor, as have games that allow athletic kids to naturally “succeed” and the not-so-athletic to repeatedly “fail.” (Dodgeball, anyone?)
PE today is designed to be “a place where every child gets to succeed, practice and move for more than 50 percent of the class time,” he says. “Every child has a ball and is practicing dribbling or kicking, just like in reading, (where) every child has a book to read.”
Across the board, school is a much more active place to be, including during recess and before and after school, “or at least that’s what they’re trying to make it,” he adds.
That’s the mission throughout Regional School Unit 18 in Central Maine, where:
• Principal Jennifer McGee leads a weekly, hour-long group dance class attended by all 200 students at Robert Atwood Primary School.
• Pedometers are used at Belgrade Central School as elementary students participate in the Fuel Up to Play 60 fitness program, measuring their steps and the number of miles needed to reach all 31 NFL stadiums.
• Trail walks, and snowshoeing in winter, are standard at China Primary where a nearby forest has outdoor learning stations, a treehouse dubbed the “Reading Tree,” and a pond where students complete scientific experiments on the bridge and other more active stations.
• Students take turns pedaling away and burning energy on two FitDesk exercise bikes during math teacher Josh Lambert’s class at China Middle School.
• A new greenhouse and garden program at Messalonskee High School keeps students busy planting, weeding, and harvesting crops that are used in the school cafeteria and donated to a local food bank.
“You exert a lot of energy building garden beds, cleaning the weeds out, hauling, and raking,” says Claire Heffernan, health coordinator for the school district. “You’re not just watching your garden grow.”
Stretch breaks also have been added in all eight schools “so that (students) can be more focused on their schoolwork,” says Heffernan.
Increased attentiveness has been one of several benefits, along with improved attendance rates and scores on strength and flexibility tests, recorded by the Encinitas Union School District since adding a yoga-based fitness program, says Timothy Baird, superintendent of the 5,300-student, K-6 district in California’s northern San Diego County.
Conversely, rates of stress, suspensions, and discipline problems declined according to data analyzed by the district and researchers at the University of San Diego, says Baird.
“It’s been pretty powerful to see what this program, in conjunction with other work we’re doing, has done for our students,” he says.
Students receive two 30- to 40- minute yoga sessions each week in the ON the Mat fitness program. Combined with a nutrition, healthy eating and living, and food preparation component, the four-prong Encinitas Health and Wellness program was recognized by NSBA’s 2015 Magna Awards for excellent school district programs.
‘Brain breaks’ lead to better grades
Letting the brain take a break to re-energize and refocus on school work is one thing, but can students’ use of desk cycles, mini trampolines, balance boards, and even bouncy, inflated seat discs while taking that break help them get better grades?
Such classroom activity may sound disconcerting, even chaotic, but results from an informal study conducted in several elementary and middle school classes in Wisconsin’s Wausau School District are the latest to suggest that offering students opportunities for increased physical activity and movement during class in short, three-to-five minute bursts, may hold important benefits.
In the small, limited study, classroom scores in reading and vocabulary “went up dramatically” once these active classroom strategies were introduced, says Superintendent Kathleen Williams. The results were so impressive that a more structured, scientific study is now planned to examine the possible correlation.
The initial study was conceived of by district teachers after reading Harvard psychiatry professor John Ratey’s best-selling book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, along with other research suggesting that exercise optimizes brain function by supplying the muscle with fresh blood and oxygen.
Ratey’s research, in particular, says that exercise stimulates the development of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which, in turn, acts likes “Miracle Gro for the brain.”
Studies endorsing exercise as a benefit to the brain and learning include:
• A 2013 Institute of Medicine report that concludes that children who are more active show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed, and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active; and that ensuring that children and adolescents achieve at least 60 minutes of daily vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity may improve overall academic performance. http://iom.nationalacademies.org/Reports/2013/Educating-the-Student-Body-Taking-Physical-Activity-and- Physical-Education-to-School.aspx
• A 2010 CDC report that says “substantial evidence” shows physical activity can help improve academic achievement (including grades and standardized test scores); physical activity can impact cognitive skills, attitudes and academic behavior, all of which are important components of improved academic performance; and increasing or maintaining time dedicated to physical education may help, and does not appear to adversely impact, academic performance. www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/health_and_academics/pdf/pape_executive_summary.pdf
The move to more active classrooms with movement breaks integrated into the daily schedule can benefit a wide range of students, perhaps especially some special-needs learners, high-energy students, and fidgety kids, says Williams.
Although taking a break on a mini-trampoline, desk cycle, or balance board may not be suitable in every classroom situation, let alone cost effective, “we’re finding those things can enhance activity in a limited space while engaging individual students so that they’re more fit and more alert to learn,” she says.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ fitness efforts have likewise been nationally, and internationally, recognized. It was most recently named a model North American program by UNESCO for its efforts at “transforming the focus of physical education from traditional sports to other activities with a fitness focus that children and adolescents enjoy.”
More than a decade ago, the district did its first survey of students to determine what they would like in physical education and continues to get their input as it strives to develop appealing, fitness-focused activities, says Greenberg. High on their wish lists: activities that help them get fit and get outdoors when possible. Hence the wellness centers (an additional six centers will open in 2016, putting one in every middle and high school in the district with available space); spinning and Pilates; expanded water sports that take advantage of the region’s natural resources; the planned geocaching program; and more.
That includes the use of iPads and other digital devices in technology-based indoor fitness trails for recess activities, active gaming like Dance Dance Revolution, and interactive stationary bikes that combine kids’ love of technology with fitness.
The newer additions “haven’t been done at the expense of team and individual sports,” Greenberg stresses. “But for students that weren’t engaged or didn’t like them and wanted something else, we’ve been able to offer that to them.”
The fitness program also is fully inclusive of students with special needs. Anchors Away, a sailing program that uses specially designed boats for students with disabilities, is a particular point of pride, as is the district’s successful participation in the “I Can Do It, You Can Do It!” program, an initiative developed by the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disability and now managed by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.
“Every year we now have up to 1,600 students with disabilities earn the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award,” says Greenberg.
With zero dollars in the district budget allotted for physical education, it’s up to her team, “out of necessity,” to find financial support from community partners, federal and state grants, foundations, and local business, says Greenberg. “I give a lot of credit to our superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, and our school board, because they encourage us. They want us to bring the best programs possible to the kids.”
And when it comes to fitness, “we want the skills that they learn throughout their years (in) school to really expand beyond the school years.”
Michelle Healy (email@example.com) is a staff writer at American School Board Journal.
Watch a video featuring Wausau School District teacher Kenneth Smith and colleagues showing the active classroom effort at Horace Mann Middle School: http://tinyurl.com/q7ehydr
Yoga is a good fit for the Encinitas physical education curriculum because it gives students the opportunity to stretch, breathe, and focus their bodies and minds during a busy school day.