Dolores Navarro, a kindergarten teacher at the McCormick School in Chicago says that when she began to weave brief periods of structured exercise into the school day, students responded.
“They are more open to doing work and finishing their tasks after they are physically active,” she says. “They have more energy. Their brains are more focused, more alert. Their brains are working – when they do math, they get through the problems quickly, just like that!”
In Navarro’s classroom, students take a break every hour to stretch, and a kid-friendly video leads them through exercises for twenty minutes a day. Even small amounts of physical activity are valuable, she says: “As a teacher, you say, ‘Oh, I don’t have time,’” she said. “But you see that it’s simple -- you do have time.”
At Merrill Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, science teacher Blake Hammond appeals to kids’ innate sense of play. He worked with a physical education teacher at the school to incorporate the Nintendo Wii (a video game that requires life-like movements to play simulations of games such as tennis) into the school day. Soon he and others and raised enough funds for an interactive fitness arcade including the Wii, video bikes, another activity-heavy game called Dance Dance Revolution, and more.
“You can see a direct connection between students’ wellness and their engagement in class,” Hammond says. “Their participation, raising their hand, there’s an overall connection. The awareness of self that comes with wellness is a huge success when it comes to kids this age. When they have that, they’re more ready to participate and learn.”
Physical activity is crucial not only to academic achievement but to reducing the epidemic levels of childhood obesity and related illnesses. The Department of Health and Human Services forecasts that, three years from now, one out of five children and youth in the United States will be obese, which can lead to greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke later in life.
In a 2009 report, The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation highlighted the critical role that schools play in ending this epidemic. As part of its call for a national strategy to address obesity, the report recommended increasing the frequency, intensity, and duration of physical activity at school. By incorporating physical activity into the everyday classroom environment, teachers are not only leading sessions of yoga or jumping-jacks. They’re preparing the next generation for a lifetime of healthy habits, breaking the pattern of obesity at a time when action is critical.
Navarro says she knew it was time to take action in her classroom when she saw her kindergartners struggling with physical activity at such a young age.
She says:“Looking at those little kids who have trouble breathing, trouble exercising – you just reach the point where you say: Stop! It’s got to stop.”