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Instruction in motion brings PE into classroom

Giving students a much-needed brain break—and academic boost—with exercises in class
  • Second graders at William Green Elementary School in Lawndale, Calif., stretch and move in between learning in what is called Instant Recess (IR).
  • As part of Activity Works programs, third-graders at Alexander Street School in Newark stretch after taking a virtual 10-minute tour of the United States.
  • At the Nexus Academy of Indianapolis, students complete coursework online or at the school, and work at their own pace. Above, a junior is jumping rope while other students stretch on mats and pull rubber bands for a quick physical break during the day.
  • Another class exercises between lessons at  at William Green Elementary School in Lawndale, Calif. Teachers received special training for the program.

Each afternoon between social studies and math, Marilynn Szarka’s third-grade students start to get droopy. Szarka instructs everyone to stand up and spread out while she dims the lights, closes the door and flips on the interactive whiteboard that will take them on an aerobic adventure.

One day, students run in place, pretending to hold the Olympic torch while they see—and learn about— scenes from ancient Greece flashing on the whiteboard. Another day, they bend down to pretend to collect leaves, counting by twos as they go.

“Kids look forward to it,” says Szarka, from Loesche Elementary School in the School District of Philadelphia. “And they’re learning because each episode has a theme. They might climb a ladder into the space shuttle or run across the United States looking at landmarks.”

“Movement helps get the wiggles out, and they’re ready to go back to work,” adds Principal Victoria Velazquez, who sees better attention and focus among students who get regular physical activity.

School leaders seeking similar benefits have driven a surge in classroom exercise at the same time physical education budgets are decreasing and childhood obesity remains a top health concern. Szarka and her Loesche colleagues use Activity Works, a media-based, plug-and-play program that combines physical activity with state- and national-mandated curriculum for grades one through three.

For example, when Szarka’s students are using Activity Works to explore and learn about the space shuttle, they’re also developing an understanding of objects in the sky—a national science standard. The program includes CDs, DVDs, lesson plans and online access to interactive physical activities.

Also known as “brain breaks,” these kinetic intermissions typically last less than 10 minutes and allow students to perk up or calm down, depending on the situation.

The programs—ranging from free to thousands of dollars per school—may be a solution for administrators who are looking for innovative, cost-effective ways to get students the 60 minutes of daily physical activity that is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Instant Recess

When her students get antsy or slouchy, southern California kindergarten teacher Wendy Gonzalez has an immediate response at her fingertips. She uses routines and exercises she learned from Instant Recess, a system of DVDs and YouTube videos that promote 10-minute bursts of moderate physical activity meant to improve health and productivity.

77% of teachers surveyed agree that most students are more focused and dedicated to learning after using Activity Works.

Gonzalez pops in a CD of kid-friendly music, such as Joanie Bartels’ “Gonna Have a Party,” and starts a routine that might involve neck rolls or marching in place, always ending with deep, relaxing breathing. “It gives students the break they need, and when they’re finished, they’re awake and ready to learn,” says Gonzalez, who teaches at Mark Twain Elementary School in the Lawndale Elementary School District. “I have less misbehavior than before.”

The Lawndale program was financed through a REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) grant administered by the CDC.

Instant Recess and other programs don’t require teachers to lead the classroom exercises, says Jesus Mejia, supervisor of Creating Opportunity for Physical Activity (COPA) at Providence Little Company of Mary Hospital. The nonprofit regional health care provider in the South Bay area of Los Angeles works with local schools to combat obesity and promote good health, and has helped implement Instant Recess in Lawndale and other districts.

“Some teachers like videos they can follow or just watch,” Mejia says. “Some like to lead dancing with their class. Others don’t feel so comfortable, so they allow students to lead.”

Creating a “culture of physical activity” becomes easier as more classes get involved, so it’s important to get buy in from teachers and staff, Mejia adds. “If you get up and dance between subjects or during a class, then being physically active becomes the norm,” he says.


Various studies show correlations between physical activity and academics, with the CDC concluding that schools can feel confident that maintaining or increasing time for daily physical activity may improve academic performance.

By the Numbers

  • 150 minutes per week: Recommended amount of physical ed for elementary school.
  • 225 minutes per week: Recommended amount of physical ed for middle and high school.

Source: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance

Activity Works reports that 77 percent of surveyed teachers who use its program four or more times a week agree that “most students show more focus and ability to attend to instruction.” More than half of the teachers said most students got better grades.

And a 2009 report from the New York City Health Department and the New York City Department of Education showed a correlation between higher fitness and higher standardized test scores. Those two city departments designed a K5 classroom-based program called Move-to-Improve, which integrates grade-specific, academic material in 10-minute physical activity lessons aligned with state physical education standards.

“At any given time you might see a teacher in the hall with one or more kids doing push-ups or jumping jacks, and the kids are having a blast,’’ says Sandra D’Avilar, principal of Teunis G. Bergen Elementary School in Brooklyn.

As part of Move-to-Improve, Bergen teachers have been trained to recognize signs that fidgeting or yawning students could use a break. “We don’t see as much restlessness as we had in prior years,” D’Avilar says. “We use it a lot during transitions so when kids are moving from one subject to another, they’ll take a break and sing or dance.”

The history of moving

The emphasis on physical activity, particularly for youth, has gained traction with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! and the NFL’s Play 60 programs. NFL PLAY 60 was launched in 2007 to tackle childhood obesity by getting kids active for 60 minutes a day through in-school, after-school and online activities.

“We try to get kids to understand that exercise and activity can be anything—not just a weight room or marathon,” says James Overton, a health and physical education teacher. Overton uses Play 60 components, such as speed and agility training, at Quibbletown Middle School in the Piscataway School District in New Jersey. “It can be going outside and playing, walking your dog,” he says.

Visits from professional players, such as the Jets’ Kyle Wilson, and football- jersey giveaways drum up students’ interest in the program, Overton says.

“Our kids are starting to realize the benefits of being active,” Overton says. “They’ll come in and say ‘I have a test next period so I want to get my heart rate up.’ They talk about having a good breakfast or lunch before working on a big project or presentation.”

Quibbletown Middle School was recognized recently for the 124 sixth graders who logged more than 78,000 minutes of physical activity during an NFL PLAY 60 Super Bowl challenge that was developed in conjunction with the American Heart Association.

Overton says he also sees another benefit of increased exercise: “It seems [fighting and bullying] are happening at a lesser rate as kids are more active, eating better and taking care of themselves.”

Let’s Move! was launched in 2010 to combat childhood obesity by increasing activity and improving access to affordable, healthy foods. While many exercise-in-place programs target elementary school students, Let’s Move! includes activities for early-education providers, as one in five children is overweight or obese by age 6.

Classroom physical activity helps schools meet these and the CDC recommendations, says Paula Kun, senior director of communications for American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance (AAHPERD).

AAHPERD is a partner of Let’s Move! that recommends elementary school students get 150 minutes, or two and a half hours, of physical education a week, and middle and high school students get 225 minutes, or three hours and 45 minutes.

“These programs are wonderful ways to integrate physical activity before, during and after school,” Kun says.

Nutrition element

Good nutrition is the centerpiece of Fuel Up to Play 60, a complementary program founded by the NFL and the National Dairy Council in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I do lunch duty and see more fruit, veggies, milk (on lunch trays) than I used to,’’ says Overton, whose school participates in Fuel Up to Play 60. “We’re getting them on the road to better nutrition.”

Jamie Brady knows the benefits of healthy eating and physical activity for youth. As principal of the Indianapolis-based Nexus Academy, a public high school that provides face-to-face instruction and online coursework, Brady says she frequently sees students exercising on stationary bikes, treadmills and balance ball chairs while doing online coursework in the building.

They’re also eating healthy snacks provided by the school and exercising in class.

“The teachers are fine with it,” Brady says. “They find students are better focused and more attentive. They can be on their stomachs or doing leg lifts on a ball chair as long as their eyes are on the teacher and they are actively engaged in the lesson.”

Regina Whitmer is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Regina Whitmer is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.