Moving around the classroom at SFES makes a difference

RACHEL HOUWERS leads her second-grade class at Sheboygan Falls Elementary School in a series of activities that involve balance. — Submitted photo RACHEL HOUWERS leads her second-grade class at Sheboygan Falls Elementary School in a series of activities that involve balance. — Submitted photo Sometimes it's the simplest things that make all the difference.

Like a couple of stretches and desk push-ups during math class. Or a lap around the school nature trail. Or even running up and down the steps inside the school.

Take it from Nancy Mathieu and her third graders at Sheboygan Falls Elementary School, adding some “movement breaks” of “energizers” during the classroom day equals a big change in student behavior.

“It was a good thing. They were more focused,” Mathieu said. “They seemed to listen better. They were more attentive. They were more engaged.”

Mathieu and second grade teacher Rachel Houwers added the breaks as part of an informal initiative suggested by elementary physical education teacher Paul Houwers, who had been following research that showed links between increased physical activity and improved achievement among students for years.

After talking with the two classroom teachers, he decided to try an “experiment” this year.

“I just wanted to try it,” he said. “There's more and more research out there about the connection between physical activity and student achievement.”

He asked the teachers to begin each school day with some sort of cardiovascular activity for their students.

In good weather, Mathieu's students took a lap around the school's nature trail or ran the bases in the baseball diamond.

Rachel Houwers' students got to choose the type of activity they would do using activity dice or cards that have activities on them.

They also used the nature trail and got to make some choices there as well.

“I tried to provide choices for that, such as galloping, walking fast or skipping to keep the students interested and let all students participate regardless of ability levels,” she said.

Paul Houwers also asked the teachers to incorporate movement breaks throughout the class day. The number of breaks varied although Mathieu used a timer to schedule two breaks during her hour-long math class. Research suggests that the length of children's attention span is their age, plus or minus two minutes, which in the case of third graders is about 7 to 11 minutes.

And math is a subject that requires a lot of focus.

“If I didn't do it, they would ask for it,” Mathieu said. “I called the breaks 'energizer.' and the students would say, 'We need an energizer.'”

Houwers gave her students short breaks during transition times in the classroom. Sometimes there would be short yoga or dance videos or even just 30 seconds of arm circles.

Both teachers also used physical activity to reinforce lessons they were learning in the classroom.

After studying about the food chain in science, Mathieu had her students play a tag game that included components of the food chain.

Rachel Houwers used activities like having the students count by 5s or 10s, or recite the alphabet backwards while moving around to get them active and reinforce academic concepts.

Her students enjoyed the breaks and would ask for one if they went too long without one.

“Even students who normally shy away from physical activity or may have sat out in the beginning of the year because it was something new, participated and could be successful,” she said.

Paul Houwers first learned of the link between physical movement and student achievement during a presentation by researcher Jean Blaydes Madigan, a proponent of action-based learning.

ApplyHe drewin personon heratresearch, as well as recent studies by the Center for Diseases Control to set up his informal project this year.

The teachers attended a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction workshop on Core4+, a set of strategies to improve students' physical activity.

They also got information and suggested activities from an educational website, GoNoodle.

Paul Houwers is pleased by the experiment and hopes that other teachers will incorporate movement into their classrooms next year.

After what she has seen this year, Mathieu plans to continue to incorporate physical activity into her students' school day.

“I think it's huge,” she said. “I've definitely made it part of my teaching. I wouldn't do it any other way.”

Rachel Houwers agreed.

“With the increased amount of time the students are expected to spend in the classroom listening or taking tests, I feel that this time for movement is necessary and very helpful for them,” she said. “There are some days that I could use a 3-minute stretch or walk too. All of us need breaks during the day to continue to do our best work and stay focused.”

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