Paramount on the list of concerns for the majority of schools is the implementation of Common Core State Standards and working to get students to meet rigorous standards and be ready for life outside of K-12 education. With this concern comes a focus on precious seat time, and using every minute effectively. Coupling this with budget woes, extra programs and supplemental activities start to disappear. Among this, PE, extra “frivolous” recess, and a number of other programs that involved physical activity go to the wayside. But what is the price of these losses? If enough opportunity to be active is lost, do our students lose their ability to focus? Is the price of higher academics a lack of a healthy lifestyle? How do we, as schools, balance these higher expectations with the health of our students in light of the “health emergency” of our nation’s current obesity rate. (Hoffman, 2012)
Physical Activity and Academic Success
The link between increased physical movement and academic achievement is well-documented, particularly so with at-risk, minority students and other “special populations”. (Basch, 2011, Santiago & Disch, 2013) However, this is not necessarily a direct correlation. Are students successful because they are active? Or are they successful because they have families that are engaged and supportive enough to ensure that they are active? Is being active a byproduct of overall health and stability which leads to being engaged in school? It is a complicated issue.
Sports are an excellent example of this: students involved in sports are more likely to graduate. (Renfrow, Caputo, Otto, Farley & Eveland-Sayers, 2011) However, with sports come a number of support systems that link to academics: coaches provide advocacy and study times for athletes, students are accountable to maintain GPA, and attendance requirements and discipline infractions can be the end of a student athlete’s career. (Chomitz, Slining, McGowan, Mitchell, Dawson, & Hacker, 2009) Is it the physical activity of sports that helps students succeed in school or all of the components that go with it?
However the link is undeniable: students that regularly participate in physical activity are more likely to succeed in school, and in a far broader perspective, they are more likely to be healthier for the rest of their life. (Chomitz et al, 2009) How do we replicate that student athlete support and engagement for all students at all levels?
One sad statistic that is regularly referenced is the loss of PE in elementary. (Beautlieu, Butterfield & Pratt, 2009) If students do not build healthy habits early on, the likelihood of them adding them later in life becomes less likely. Additionally, the number of children that are now considered obese indicates a pressing need to get kids moving. (Hoffman, 2012)
Unfortunately, this comes at a time where there is a considerable urgency with academics, as the CCSS push rigorous expectations into a majority of states. So where is the trade off? How crucial is it to sacrifice seat time for physical activity? And will it pay off in the end? Or better yet, is there a way to marry the two?
In a small rural elementary school in Oregon two teachers were frustrated with two large classes of 2nd and 3rd grade students with many different needs and academic levels. More frustrating was that they just could not “sit and focus”. Their solution was to create more opportunities for them to move, but they feared the loss of instructional time.
The two created a “Fit Kids, Strong Body, Strong Mind” program for their two classes to do on non-PE days (PE was twice a week in half hour sessions), that focused on physical fitness and healthy lifestyle habits. While the focus was health, the two weaved in academics throughout the program, thus creating a happy compromise and balance between increased activity and academics.
The program made a concentrated effort to use math and literacy at every opportunity. Students practiced math facts while they did circuits, to calculate calories burned and nutritional information. The teachers used reading strategies and literacy instruction as students read information on healthy lifestyles. More importantly, they created classrooms where it was cool to be fit and smart. Classroom discussion and writing turned to the dangers of video games and the sedate lifestyle they create, and students started considering what they ate at home and how that should change.
The program expanded beyond its structured time and began to infiltrate the classroom’s day. To transition activities, teachers began using yoga poses and “active brain breaks” to get students focused and kinesthetic activities to reinforce teaching. For example, one teacher worked out a stretching routine to support the literacy routine in the classroom and chant with movements to go with reading strategies. Additionally, the curriculum piece of the program took a “literacy across the curriculum” approach as they built vocabulary, used sight words, and developed reading strategies as they studied health curriculum together.
The program soon changed the dynamic of the school, and other teachers started replicating the program in order to share the success. The Community Club paid to bring in outside instructors to lead activities like yoga, and soon the school as a whole began to re-evaluate what they did to support student health. Traditional celebrations like parties and birthdays brought in junk food on a regular basis, and required a lot of time for teacher planning. Instead of using food and crafts for holidays, the school started looking at active ways to celebrate, like the class earning a kickball session, or doing an extra session of Fit Kids.
Food became another topic of conversation: As the students learned more about the importance of good nutrition, it became a natural shift to move away from traditional cupcakes and candy, and into more healthful alternatives. Even fundraising began to be as aspect of our healthy culture. While a Jog-a-thon was already a part of the school, soon came other opportunities to partner with agencies like Kaiser Permanente who created a fundraiser and awards based on tracking activity.
While the program did rob some minutes of seat time, the alternatives were not as feasible. Creating before or after-school activities did not provide transportation, and the school knew this would be a hurdle for those students who may most need these interventions. (Lennox & Pienaar, 2013) Research had also shown that at-risk students were the most likely to show a decline in physical activity at school, perhaps because more time is dedicated towards academics, so making this physical time (which supported their academics) a part of the school day was crucial. (Poke, 2011)
The community participation also gathered momentum as parents began reporting their students sharing healthier options at home, and many families asked the school about resources to help their whole family become more active. This was a critical piece for success, because reinforcing these behaviors at home made the program relevant and helped ensure that these habits would persist after they left the elementary school. (Voss & Sandercock, 2013)
Was the program successful? In the second year of its implementation, the data is positive. Students are engaged in the program and school discipline and academic focus shows improvement. Most of this is anecdotal as concrete data are not in yet for students that participated in the program last year, but the school culture and positive feedback has been overwhelming.
Basch, C. (2011). Physical activity and the achievement gap among urban minority youth. Journal of School Health, 81, 626-634.
Beautlieu, L., Butterfield, S. & Pratt, P. (2009). Physical activity opportunity in United States public elementary schools. ICHPER-SD, 4(2), 6-9.
Blom, L., Alvarez, J., Zhang, L. & Kolbo, J. (2011). Associations between health-related physical fitness, academic achievement, and selected academic behaviors of elementary and middle school students in the state of Mississippi. ICHPED-SD, 6(1).
Chomitz, V., Slining, M., McGowan, R., Mitchell, S., Dawson, G. & Hacker, K. (2009). Is there a relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement? Positive results from public school children in the Northeastern United States. Journal of School Health, 79(1).
Hoffman, J., Chaykin, D., Teale, S., HBO Documentary Films., Institute of Medicine (U.S.), Center for Disease Control., National Institutes of Health (U.S.), Warner Home Video (Firm). (2012). The weight of the nation. New York: HBO Home Box Office.
Lennox, A, Pienaar, A. (2013). Effects of an after-school physical activity programme on aerobic fitness and physical activity levels of adolescents from a disadvantaged community: PLAY study. African Journal for Physical Health Education, Recreation and Dance, 19(11), 154-168.
Popke, M. (2011). Making fitness fit. Athletic Business, December.
Renfrow, M., Caputo, J., Otto, S., Farley, R. & Eveland-Sayers, B. (2011). The relationship between sports participation and health-related physical fitness in middle school and high
school students. The Physical Educator.
Santiago, J. & Roper, E. (2013). The relationship among aerobic capacity, body composition, and academic achievement of fourth and fifth grade Hispanic students. The Physical Educator, 70, 89-105.
Voss, C. & Sandercock, G. (2013). Associations between perceived parental physical activity and aerobic fitness in schoolchildren. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 10, 397- 405.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.