The first time I saw my son bouncing back and forth between the work and play areas at preschool, I knew he was doomed. While his Montessori school was ideal for the energy level that seems to invade his body every minute of the day, the idea of sending him to public school for Kindergarten left me with visions of phone calls from the principal because, “he just couldn’t sit still.”

This scenario often sent my anxiety into overdrive and it wasn’t until I tapped into my own knowledge and training in Exercise Science and Educational Counseling, that I realized learning doesn’t have to be this challenging – for my son, or for any student.

So, with the help of his talented teachers, several sessions with a brilliant occupational therapist, and some genius props, my son’s “village” equipped him with the tools he needed to manage his wiggles in the classroom, and avoid having a permanent lunch date with the principal.

How does movement help?

In the simplest of terms, movement “turns on” the brain. Movement is one of the best ways for children and teens to gain control over their behavior, engage in their learning, and retain what they’re being taught. Sitting for long periods of time actually works against the ability of students to learn effectively. Many parents and teachers are now realizing that incorporating exercise and movement into the classroom better prepares the body to learn.

Dr. Niran Al-Agba, a pediatrician and owner of Silverdale Pediatrics says, “Exercise stimulates the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for focus, concentration, planning, and organization. This is the same place in the brain where medications for ADHD have an effect. So movement is a natural way to help kids focus and pay attention better.”

As most educators can attest, there are entire groups of kids who are missing out on essential learning opportunities because they struggle to focus and pay attention. Many of these students, like my son, have found success the “natural way” when they’re afforded the opportunity to use movement while working and learning.

Jackie Brown, a pediatric occupational therapist and owner of Apple Tree Therapy stresses the importance of having a child’s body (in all sensory areas) in balance. “When our body is balanced it helps support increased neurological function (more focused attention, better problem solving skills, and improved self-concept). As society continues to become more sedentary with video games preferred to playgrounds, and playgrounds having less options for a variety of movement, it is even more important to present creative movement activities to children in classroom settings.”

Brown definitely echoes the sentiments of many parents when it comes to recess and outdoor activity. “From my perspective, recess is the most important part of the day for children. Not only is it fun, but it is critical to help children’s bodies get the sensory input they need for learning.”

Like Brown, Dr. Al-Agba also believes that, overall, we don’t have enough movement built into a child’s school day. As a result, “children are showing signs of that unfulfilled need to move, which is translating into signs of inattention and impulsivity at school.”

What can schools do?

In a perfect world, recess would be plentiful, physical education would take place every day and kids would be allowed to move freely while learning. But the reality is, recess is becoming more limited, P.E. is only a few days a week, and students are being asked to sit more due to the demands of standardized testing.

Because of this, Brown stresses the importance of having more opportunities for children to move in the classroom setting. She encourages teachers to consider effective movement ideas including sitting on yoga balls, using foot fidgets (exercise bands around chair legs to push against), doing chair push-ups by lifting oneself off the chair, and fidget toys like stress balls.

Incorporating short exercise or stretch breaks into lessons can resharpen children’s focus on learning. Especially for younger students, dividing lessons into 8-20 minute “chunks” punctuated with activities that involve movement keeps their attention on learning and helps make the content more memorable. Exercise and stretch breaks also work well during transitions between lessons.

As a school counselor for the last 18 years, I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms and witnessed first-hand the focused attention that occurs as a result of giving students the freedom to move their bodies. In my school, many teachers have seen a decrease in inattention and impulsivity by using exercise balls, standing work areas, outdoor learning, and even a few laps around the track to burn some energy before taking a test.

Danyell Laughlin, an English teacher at Klahowya Secondary School in Silverdale, Washington, shared with me that, “sitting down quietly does not equal the best work for all kids, it does not even work for most kids. Standing in the back, sitting on exercise balls that require balance, even turning back and forth a bit in a chair that swivels works out much of the physical restlessness a body has and allows the brain to focus on the work, better and longer.”

And incorporating different modalities for learning has also been an enormous help in Laughlin’s classroom. “I have some students who get up and walk a bit, quietly, for a minute or two between chunks of focused work on the assignment. As a result, the work is significantly better and the students are happier, more confident, and more willing to tackle difficult tasks without giving up.”

These energizing “brain breaks” (60 – 90 second movement activities during a single class period, or a few times during each hour) increase blood flow in the body, stimulating brain function. By intentionally incorporating these breaks into the day, students remain longer in their optimal learning state.

Like Laughlin, many other teachers are looking for alternative ways to use movement and exercise with students. Bethany Lambeth, a middle school teacher from Martin Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina, recently made the news for her use of a small foot cycle – DeskCycle – that allows her students to rhythmically pedal while working on math problems.

Since installing these cycles under students desks, Lambeth has seen a huge increase in the quality of students’ work, along with a decrease in missing assignments – a nearly 50% decrease for the students that struggle the most.

What’s so special about the various products and tools available to schools? Lisa Daily of DeskCycle said, “students who have a DeskCycle available to them in the classroom get the benefit of a slow, steady, non-disruptive controlled movement, allowing them to keep their focus and pay full attention to the teacher.”

“Teachers are constantly telling me that students get the wiggles, tap and drum on their desks, drop things on the floor (so they have an excuse to pick them up) all in an attempt to fulfill their need to move,” Daily added. “These students are working so hard at trying to sit still that they cannot concentrate on what the teacher is saying, and that’s why DeskCycles have been such a huge success in the classroom.”

What can parents do at home?

The beauty of all of these tips and tools is that they don’t have to stop when the school day ends. Parents can also utilize many of these techniques at home:

Allow your child to have movement breaks every 8 – 20 minutes while doing homework – push-ups, jumping jacks, quick sprints, scooter, or bike up and down the driveway, etc. These don’t have to be long breaks, sometimes all kids’ need is a few minutes to get refocused.

Have your child sit on an exercise ball (weighted with sand) and roll/rotate their hips while reading.

Use of inflatable wiggle/wobble seats to encourage continuous, subtle movement.

Create a standing work station by using a raised bar area in your kitchen or building your own standing desk.

Equipment like a DeskCycle or a treadmill is a way to keep kids continually moving while practicing concepts learned at school. Treadmills are particularly helpful while quizzing kids on spelling words, math facts, or asking them the practice questions for an upcoming test.

Allowing students more movement – both in the classroom and at home – is a win-win for teachers, parents, and kids alike. Movement helps kids be more successful in their learning and behavior, it sharpens their understanding of difficult concepts, increases their retention of learned information, and sets them on a path of lifelong health and well-being.