Physical activity breaks, also known as brain breaks, are short, energized bursts of acute activity that boost blood flow, send oxygen to the brain, help kids retain information and increase physical activity levels throughout the school day. These breaks allow students to have a breather from learning through movement and exercise. Movement increases blood flow, bringing more oxygen to the brain and leads to improved brain function. Using physical activity breaks in the classroom helps children improve concentration, memory and classroom behavior. Physical activity breaks can be used to energize a group after lunch or relax and calm a class before a test, after lunch or at the end of the day.
A brain break can be as simple as a five-minute stretch or walk in the classroom; however, evidence supports that 15-20 minutes of activity result in, the biggest benefit of, improved cognitive function. Brain breaks are evidence-based and their efficacy has been scientifically proven. In one study, findings indicate that a 20-minute walk resulted in significantly increased brain activity compared to the brain activity of a student who was sedentary (Hillman et al 2009). This resulted in improved performance on reading, spelling and arithmetic tests. In another study, students who normally performed poorly on attention tasks improved their accuracy when tested shortly after 20-minutes of walking on a treadmill (Drollette et al 2014).
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What does the research show? Click here to learn about the positive associations between classroom-based physical activity and academic performance.
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The Pennsylvania Department of Health granted funding to PRO Wellness via two federal funding sources to facilitate the Building Healthy Schools Grant Program. Eighty-one schools across 15 districts in Pennsylvania were impacted by this grant program. During the initiative William Penn School District completing a district-wide wellness assessment. After reviewing results, the wellness council identified the need to integrate more physical activity opportunities into the school day. Prepared with evidence of a link between physical activity and academic performance, the wellness council approached the school board, who prioritized this need and decided to mandate 15-minute brain breaks for all students in grades K-12.
After William Penn School District’s new brain break mandate, teachers expressed improved academic achievement. Carol Poplawski, a second-grade teacher at Park Lane Elementary School found great success in integrating brain breaks. After students return from 90-minutes in the library, she uses a brain break to help them transition into the math lesson for the day. She has noticed that the brain breaks have helped students focus on difficult math lessons and she attributes outstanding test scores to the brain breaks. She also uses brain breaks as a reward for students after completion of a challenging test or lesson. Improved test scores, better focus, improved behavior and improved gross motor skills are some of the benefits that Poplawski has noticed since integrating these guided activity breaks into her class.
Not only do these activities help students focus and get extra physical activity during the day, but the students love participating and are even using the activities at home. Poplawski introduced brain breaks and the activity tool to parents during back to school night and frequently receives positive feedback from both parents and students. Furthermore, she has shared her successes with her school faculty in the hopes that other educators will see the utility in brain breaks and continue implementing them in their classrooms. Poplawki recognizes that the support of the administration has been vital to the integration of brain breaks and is grateful for the extra time in her schedule to offer this tool to her students.
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There are a few different ways of including physical activity into the classroom. The following sections provide great tips and ideas to help you develop a plan that will work best with your students.
Classic Classroom Physical Activity Breaks: The most traditional way of implementing physical activity breaks in the classroom is to simply repeat a form of exercise. Jumping jacks, running in place, arm circles and squats are all classic examples. Consider what might work in the space you have and engage your students by asking them what they like to do.
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Take the Long Way: End your lesson a few minutes early and suggest that your students take a longer route to get to their next class. If this new route includes stairs – even better!
Active Learning: Physical activity breaks can also be incorporated into teaching and reviewing academic content. Teachers who are short on time may consider this method, as it doesn’t require a complete break from academics but still provides students an opportunity to move around. Consider using this style in math class where a student reports out an answer and performs the corresponding number of arm circles, or when reviewing spelling words where students can squat with a correct response and balance on one foot for an incorrect response. The Active Academics website is a great resource for incorporating physical activity into your classroom lessons.
Stretching and Mindfulness: While stretching and mindfulness are not physical activity breaks that increase heart rate, they serve equally important roles in the wellness of students. These breaks can be particularly useful before or after an exam or when transitioning between subjects. Deep breathing, silent meditation and calm stretching are just a few examples.
You may also find these techniques useful as a tool to refocus after more vigorous physical activity breaks. While useful, these are not considered physical activity breaks but are more commonly known as brain breaks.
An innovative way to increase a child’s minutes of physical activity during the school day is to incorporate physical activity breaks. These 5 to 20-minute sessions can vary widely in implementation style, but ultimately allow a student to increase their heart rate, have a mental break and refocus on the next task. Consider these tips to successfully incorporate physical activity breaks in the classroom.
Incorporating physical activity breaks into your classroom may come with concerns or perceived challenges. Maybe you worry about the time involved or if these breaks will be too distracting to your students. View commonly perceived barriers and how to overcome them below.
Recess helps students to achieve the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity that can improve strength and endurance; enhance academic achievement; and increase self-esteem for children and adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and SHAPE America have developed new guidance documents that provide schools with 19 evidence-based strategies for recess, as well as a planning guide and template to help develop a written recess plan that integrates these strategies.
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According to Rasmussen College, it may seem counterintuitive to send kids out to play when they’re falling below state standards, but recess advocates argue that getting outside for unstructured play may be more beneficial than keeping kids in the classroom all day.
“When schools choose to cut recess, they should consider the benefits they are cutting also and evaluate if the reasons for cutting recess outweigh these benefits,” says Marie Conti, head of The Wetherill School and member of the American Montessori Society board of directors. Consider the following hidden benefits that highlight the importance of recess:
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What does the research show? Click here to learn more about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ beliefs regarding the necessity of recess for a child’s development.
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Physical activity during the school day helps improve student learning, social-emotional skills and attention during class. However, recess and physical education are often taken away as punishment for students who don’t complete homework or act out in class. Often times, these are the students that need physical activity the most. Teachers and parents can do their part to ensure students get the activity they need by implementing healthy alternative consequences.
Alternative Disciplinary Measures
Here are some ways to discipline kids and offer teachable moments. Students can:
Positive Classroom Management Techniques
Positive classroom management techniques can be used to avoid behavior problems all together. By reinforcing positive behaviors and setting clear expectations, students are less likely to misbehave.
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