Move it!

Get your students’ bodies and brains moving

By Kate Daneluk

My first-grade teacher was Sr. JoEllen. We all adored her and assured the other students that she was the nicest teacher in the school. She was kind and firm and gave out prizes and was almost always smiling. But one of my strongest memories of that first-grade classroom was getting up from our desks throughout the day for active games and songs.

Jump to the left, jump to the right!
Stand up! Sit down!
Fight! Fight! Fight!

Maybe Sr. JoEllen had been a cheerleader in her high school days. Either way, I’ve known my left and right ever since, and I felt happy and energized after the activity.

It is no secret that a child’s life has changed significantly over the last 30 years. With the content each grade is expected to cover, preparing for standardized tests, and a push in many schools toward accelerated learning, even the youngest students are expected to sit still for longer amounts of time each day. Most teachers wish for more recess, but it continues to be whittled out of the day along with other opportunities for unstructured activity. In addition to more desk time than ever, many children also experience excessive screen time at home and busy afternoons and weekends with still more structured activities.

Many experts blame low physical activity and lack of unstructured play for the dramatic increase in ADHD, learning disabilities, and ocular disorders. Teachers and parents have fought for the return of recess fueled by research and anecdotal evidence showing a benefit to memory, concentration, behavior, leadership, interpersonal skills, and brain growth. Research indicates that the brain requires play in order to grow and learn. Prominent psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey describes exercise as “Miracle-Gro for the brain” (

Play-based, movement-rich, and outdoor-friendly programs are growing and experiencing impressive results in the early- childhood realm. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has called for a return to developmentally sensitive pedagogy and advocates for a reversal of “unacceptable trends in kindergarten entry and placement” (

But this is an issue for students of all ages. When occupational therapist Angela Hanscom visited a fifth-grade class, she was shocked at the level of fidgeting as the class listened to a story. The behaviors she witnessed would normally be expected in a special-needs classroom. Her tests revealed that 92 percent of the class had substandard strength and balance development. Their bodies were craving activity. Immature strength and balance are reflective of an undeveloped nervous system and have a direct correlation to the ability to learn.

Exercise and brain growth are more intimately linked than we ever suspected. New research is finding that even older adults with cognitive decline are able to regrow the brain with regular exercise. Even the modern workplace is changing. Adjustable standing desks, comfortable clothing, office gyms, and fidgety toys are encouraged in more and more companies, and proponents insist that this approach improves productivity, morale, and creativity.

If you can’t grant recess time to your class, there are other ways to get students moving more and, consequently, learning more.

Get outside

Get your students outdoors beyond recess and become the “fun” (but covertly more effective) teacher.

Take notebooks outside to practice finding power words. Choose 10 nouns and come up with three powerful and creative adjectives for each. Do five activities and write three adverbs for each. Early childhood students can narrate descriptions for teachers to record.
Create rocks or slices of wood with painted letters and numbers and invent sporty games for counting, math facts, letter identification, pairing capital and lowercase letters, spelling, and vocabulary words.
Weave cloth strips in chicken-wire walls and chain-link fences for motor-skills work. Strips can be woven to create shapes, letters, numbers, or words.
Make paintbrushes from tree branches to paint shapes, numbers, letters, spelling words, or vocabulary words with water.
Classroom garden projects have tremendous applications in science, social studies, and health and nutrition. A recent Japanese study found gardening to be exceptional exercise in addition to providing sensory stimulation.
Outdoor measuring tools, pulleys, levers, and balance scales provide opportunities for math and science and encourage students to practice their skills during playtime. Parents can help create these tools with a little Pinterest inspiration.

Take a break

One of the simplest ways to get the brain-building benefit of movement is with exercise breaks. Research has found that a simple 15-minute run before class greatly improves attentiveness. Keep your movement breaks varied with different approaches.

Activity jar: Write different exercises and activities on popsicle sticks, place the sticks in a bag, and choose one stick for various break times. Put it in the jar, and when all activities have been completed, start over.
Games and songs: This is a no-brainer for early childhood teachers, but big kids also can easily enjoy a round of The Hokey-Pokey or the Chicken Dance. It only takes a few minutes, but it makes up for itself in increased productivity and brain stimulation.
Balanced break: Have a quick balance contest. Stand on one foot for one minute. Who had to catch themselves the least? Make sure to do both feet each time. Try balancing books on heads, juggling with scarves, or catching a bean bag or koosh while standing on one foot.
Level up: Have a mini workout and include an exercise from each level category:
floor exercises: planks, superman, crunches, bridges, push-ups, butterfly kicks, V-ups
multi-level: squats, lunges, burpees, toe touches, frog jumps
standing: jumping, jumping jacks, running in place, butt kickers, marching, arm swings, spinning
midline: To strengthen the corpus collosum (the bundle of nerves which connect the left and right hemisphere of the cerebrum), do an exercise that crosses the midline of the body: touch right hand to left knee or toes, cross arms to touch shoulders, catch a bean bag thrown to your left side with your right hand, and vice versa.
Let’s dance: Dance breaks add the benefit of musical stimulation and are some of the most proven ways to enhance brain development. Kids of all ages love it. Your class will feel like The Ellen Show when you transition to a lesson with the latest pop sensation or golden oldie.


You can teach concepts in ways that get your kids’ bodies and brains moving. Try it out and prepare for some serious learning! Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

Human solar system — Use chalk or paint to create orbit lines and have students display the rotation and orbits of the planets.
Playground maps — A great school project for the Home-School or Parent-Teacher Association to donate to the school is giant world and US maps for the playground. Take the students out, pick a place from a bag filled with cards listing states or nations, and find it!
Number grid — Another great tool for the playground or a large floor space are number grids: 1-100 counting grids and a multiplication table. Kids can easily answer mental math with their bodies and skip and hop to count by fives and tens.
Spell it! — Spell words with human letters (students try to be the letters). They can “write” large words with sticks, rope, etc. Clay, pipe cleaners, small objects, or string can be used to create letters and spell words, refining small-motor skills.

Set up for success

Organize your classroom to promote movement throughout the day.

Learning centers keep children out of desks and promote movement and activity. They are not just for preschool.
Minimize what is kept in desks. Let students travel around the room to file their finished work and get their assignments and worksheets. Keep school supplies in communal drawers and containers and put up with constant pencil sharpening.
Students can fill out attendance, lunch, and other forms in different areas around the room as needed. Consider having a daily survey or an encouragement or prayer board for them to write on each day — just another reason for them to get up and walk to the other side of the room!
Have options for students as to where independent work and free reading is done. Carpets, beanbag chairs, or mats can be used to work on the floor. Taller tables allow students to stand and work. These are effective for older grade levels, as well.
Provide unstructured playtime. Offer objects like rope, wood slices, stones, and blocks and watch the physical creativity and brain growth unfold.
Assign regular housekeeping chores throughout the day, not just at day’s end. Clean boards, wipe down tables and desks, sweep, and carry books and assignments to various drop points.
Sensory experiences are not just for the preschool classroom or special ed. When children can feel and touch, learning is necessarily enhanced. Trace facts or spelling and vocabulary words in a tray of rice or cornmeal. Weigh and measure dried beans, salt, and pasta. Create models with clay and Play-Doh.

Balance boards, balls, and beams, oh my!

Enhancing the classroom with exercise equipment that keeps students moving, strengthening balance, and developing core stability will yield big benefits. Put a few items on your wish list.

Stability balls can replace desk chairs.
Balance boards are inexpensive and can be kept near standing worktables, easels, and blackboards.
Active seats use various techniques to adapt chairs into “fidget-friendly” alternatives.
Bouncy bands are an inexpensive addition to a traditional chair, providing stretchy support for active feet.
Wobble chairs will end the fear of restless students tipping over.
Balance beams can be set up down a well-used aisle.
Swivel chairs or sit-and-spins provide the spinning movement critical to brain development.
Artificial stepping stones are a safe way to practice balance while moving across the classroom.
Stationary bikes can be used to offer free-reading time.
Carpet, mats, or beanbags can be set out for students to work on the floor.


Limiting homework might feel like less is getting done, but studies continually support the fact that homework offers no measurable benefit to achievement ( Some teachers have eliminated it altogether. Others limit it to long-term projects and preparing for tests.

Be sure parents understand your homework policy and how important movement, exercise, and play are for children and teens. Assign screen-free play, reading, or household chores as homework. Children could answer the questions, “What did I play today? How did I move today?” and keep a simple journal for homework.

The international connection

Finland is recognized as one of the most successful educational systems in the world with the highest school-aged test scores, yet children do not begin formal education until age seven. Play and creativity are encouraged in the younger years.

The Netherlands boast high adult IQs but have emphasized movement, play, and the outdoors in education for years.
Italy is another IQ front-runner and is the birthplace of alternative play-based, highly-active, child-led, early childhood education approaches such as Montessori and Reggio-Emilia.

Japan is a front-runner in both test scores and IQ. Students participate in formal morning exercise routines, perform all the manual labor usually assumed by a janitor, and have two recess periods per day in addition to lunch.

Perhaps you already strive for movement in your classroom or plan to make major changes in this area. If not, try making one or two attempts to add movement to your pupils’ day. See where it leads and follow the results.

Kate Daneluk is a former Catholic school teacher, early childhood music teacher, creator of the Making Music, Praying Twice music curriculum, and a homeschooling mother of six.