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Active ‘brain breaks’ increase focus, learning, teachers say


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

BrainBreaksStretchHP2

When students get antsy, what should a teacher do?

Some Arizona teachers have found that giving their students a “brain break” of a few minutes of physical activity not only gets the wiggles out but also sharpens children’s focus and improves their behavior.

Active ‘brain breaks’ increase focus, learning, teachers say BrainBreaksStretchHP2“I know how antsy I get from sitting too long and understand the students feel the same way,” said Pearl Stumpf, a third-grade teacher at from Lone Mountain Elementary School in Cave Creek Unified School District. “The brain breaks aren’t anything formal, just a way to rejuvenate our energy.”

Stumpf has given her students brain breaks since she started teaching more than 10 years ago. She does so when she notices them losing attention.

“I have the students stand behind their chairs and lead them in some simple exercises,” Stumpf said. “They typically last five minutes and we do everything from stretching to yoga to jumping jacks to push-ups.”

Students often ask to lead the exercises, and Stumpf takes part in the physical activity, too.

“I feel the kids are more refreshed and ready to learn after we take a break,” she said. “They like taking the breaks.”

Active ‘brain breaks’ increase focus, learning, teachers say BrainBreaksHPWhy is physical activity during school so important to students’ learning?

“All the current research says that daily physical activity increases academic performance and focus, results in better behavior,” said Steve Gall, a retired physical education teacher and volunteer who teaches physical education at two elementary schools in Tucson Unified School District.

Health and fitness are linked to improved academic performance, cognitive ability and behavior, as well as reduced truancy, according to the Health in Mind report.

Physical activity also leads to increased focus for students with ADHD, Gall said.

While recess is important, it’s not enough and students benefit from supervised physical activity throughout the day and it’s also an opportunity for them to learn new activities or games to play at recess.

A recent study led by Rebecca London and Milbrey McLaughlin of Stanford University found that well-organized recess programs engage students in meaningful play and prepare them to learn when they return to the classroom.

Active ‘brain breaks’ increase focus, learning, teachers say BrainBreaksEarlier this year, Arizona Health and Physical Education, an advocacy and professional development group, sent a letter to legislators in Washington, D.C., to urge them to include physical education as a core subject to help combat childhood obesity upon a recommendation from the Institute of Medicine.

That would be one step toward helping students develop a lifetime fitness habit by combining their knowledge, attitude and skills with mental, physical and emotional balance, said Susan Leonard, president of Arizona Health and Physical Education in a Cronkite News Service report.

Subjects not considered core often are eliminated when cuts are required due to funding decreases, according to the 2012 Shape of the Nation Report.

When physical activity is incorporated creatively, teachers can connect what they’re learning about in the classroom, Gall said.

“I’ll give you an example, like math. There’s circles on a basketball court. You can talk about the radius, the diameter, the circumference,” Gall said. “I mean even science – forces of gravity – you can talk about when you’re outside.”

Also, one teacher can lead two classes of students in a physical activity, which lets the other teacher do planning or other preparation, Gall said.

“It’s practical. I’ve seen a lot of school districts that do this,” Gall said.

School leaders can encourage and support increased physical activity for students before, during and after school, by establishing a requirement for the minimum amount of minutes per week, Gall said.

“If administrators understand that this is helping the kids, then they should be able to have a minimum requirement,” Gall said.

Gall said he worked with the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, which now recommends “a minimum requirement of 90 minutes (of physical activity) per week with a minimum of 10 minutes of time,” Gall said.

“I’m really proud of that,” Gall said. “It’s one of the few districts in the state of Arizona that has that.”

Gall said he knows that teachers are busy and “have a lot of things on their plate, but we’re asking for five to 10 minutes a morning just so the kids can have a break and they’ll function better.”

The one- to three-minute brain breaks throughout the school day let students “get up and move which helps to refocus their learning,” said Rhonda Katis, who teaches second grade at Sundance Elementary School in Peoria Unified School District.

“They can be energizing – dance, wiggle, run in place – or calming –yoga – depending on what you think your students need,” Katis said. “GoNoodle.com has a great variety of brain breaks to choose from.”

GoNoodle is a free website with short physical activities to help students release some energy and refocus.

Katis said she and other Sundance teachers learned about brain breaks during a professional development day.

“We did several throughout the day to show us how they can help to refocus attention,” Katis said.

The breaks can be especially beneficial to students who typically have a difficult time staying still throughout instruction, Katis said.

“Students enjoy the opportunity to get up and move,” Katis said. “They also like that many of them are entertaining and humorous, so not only do they have a chance to move, they also have a chance to laugh and have fun.”

For the past several years, Gall has promoted legislation to increase the amount of physical activity students take part in during school. This year, Gall worked closely with Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, the author of Senate Bill 1126, which lets school district and charter governing boards adopt policies to require students in kindergarten through fifth grade to engage in organized physical activity inside or outside the classroom.

“We put so much pressure on teachers to get kids to pass high-stakes testing that sometimes the physical education piece gets pushed aside,” Bradley said in a Cronkite News Service story.

In February of this year, the State Board of Education sought public comment on a draft of updated standards for physical education.

There is no statewide requirement for physical education, because school districts determine that locally. Current Arizona standards encourage kindergarten through fifth-graders to have at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity on all or most days of the week.

A national framework requires 225 minutes a week of physical education for students in grades 7 through 12, said Sally Stewart, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education in a Cronkite News Service video.

Gall said he’d like to see Arizona develop a minimum requirement for physical activity.

“There are other states that have done this already – Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Kansas, Virginia – they all have a requirement for elementary kids for daily physical activity,” Gall said.

Gall stressed that this is not physical education, because classroom teachers are not trained in P.E.

“We’re talking about doing simple exercises or games to play with the kids outside,” Gall said. “Teachers have told me they’re much better behaved and they focus better when they come in after an exercise period.”

Cronkite News Service : Lawmaker seeks more structured physical activity in schools

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