What are the connections between physical activity and learning?

Teachers generally acknowledge there are benefits of allowing our students to be physically active. To varying degrees we understand there are physical, mental and social benefits provided by physical activity but what about the contribution physical activity can make to our ability to learn?

Dr Nick Riley from the University of Newcastle explains the link between physical activity and academic performance in students.

A small Dutch study showed that students involved in maths and language lessons that also incorporated physical movement during those lessons outperformed students who did no physical activity during lessons. This improvement was seen in maths and spelling but not in reading.

The Guardian (Australian) website recently published an article discussing how physical activity can contribute to academic improvement.

The Western Australian Department of Sport and Recreation commissioned a review of the literature examining the relationship between participation in organised sport or physical activity and academic achievement. An article in 2010 (updated 2015) by Dr Karen Martin from the The University of Western Australia outlines the positive impact of physical activity on student cognitive function. These benefits included:

  • Improving memory
  • Behaviour
  • Concentration
  • Academic achievement

“The W.A. Department of Sport and Recreation review concluded that encouraging participation in organised sport or other strategies to increase children’s physical activity opportunities could result in improved health and academic outcomes.”

There are a number of traditional ways that schools provide opportunities to be active at school.

  • Recess and lunch – this does not garuntee all students are involved in physical activity but at least they have to get out of their seats.
  • Lunch time sports – for a select few the intensity and amount of activity on those days increases dramatically.
  • Physical education – regular physical activity approximately twice a week.

How though do we get students to be active at other times? What about those subjects where students traditionally sit for 50 minutes at a time?

Physical activity as part of a students school day is important and something we should take into account to improve our students ability to learn.

Why is movement important in a child’s development?

I found these series of posts by Valarie Strauss in the Washington Post via @SirKenRobinson (on Twitter) promoting the work of pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom. They make a very interesting read about how inactivity and a “full” curriculum is contributing to a lack of basic muscle strength, underdeveloped sensory systems, poor posturing, and inefficient sensory processing of the world around them due to the amount of time spent sitting. Below are some quotes from the posts to give you a taste of what is in the articles.

If you are interested in reading the full articles the links are provided at the bottom of this post.

“A perfect stranger pours her heart out to me over the phone. She complains that her 6-year-old son is unable to sit still in the classroom. The school wants to test him for ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder).”

“I recently observed a fifth grade classroom as a favour to a teacher.The teacher was reading a book to the children. I’ve never seen anything like it. Kids were tilting back their chairs back at extreme angles, others were rocking their bodies back and forth, a few were chewing on the ends of their pencils, and one child was hitting a water bottle against her forehead in a rhythmic pattern.”

“We quickly learned after further testing, that most of the children in the classroom had poor core strength and balance.”

“They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.”

“Shortened recess times, cutting gym classes, and other specials (i.e., music and art) means we are no longer respecting the needs of the whole child. Our system of testing is failing our children.”

“In fact, none of our bodies are made to stay sedentary for lengths of time. This lack of movement and unrelenting sitting routine, are wreaking havoc on their bodies and minds.”

Admittedly these posts are directed at the American culture and schooling system where curriculum is often more focused on “high stakes testing” than in Australia and where some schools eliminate recess, P.E., the Arts etc to find more time to focus on “core” curriculum. That being said we can take a lot of important messages from these articles about how we parent and school our children in Australia.

Schoolchildren bored in a classroom, during lesson.

Post 1: Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today

Post 2: The right – and surprisingly wrong – ways to get kids to sit still in class

Post 3: A therapist goes to middle school and tries to sit still and focus. She can’t. Neither can the kids