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Want to Give Your Students a Jump on the Day?

Three mornings a week, the second and third graders at the Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, NJ, start their days jumping rope and dribbling basketballs.

This before-school activity is part of physical education teacher Ginny Smith’s efforts to give students an aerobic boost to jump-start their brains before entering the classroom. “As teachers, we know that kids are less antsy and fidgety after they’ve been involved in physical activity,” Smith says. “But now we have the science to prove it.”

How Exercise Benefits Students

Through the use of brain scans, neuroscientists can now prove that the brain is more attentive, focused and active after a period of physical exercise. “This is a huge finding for educators,” Smith says. “The physical education community is aware of the research but teachers in other subject areas are just starting to hear about it.”

Moderate to vigorous physical activity nourishes the brain with oxygen, water and glucose, which optimize the brain’s performance, according to Rae Pica, an education consultant who specializes in children's physical activity. “Feeding the brain first thing in the morning makes sense as it follows the same principle as feeding the body first thing in the morning,” she says.

Morning exercise also helps reduce stress. Getting up and out the door on a typical school-day morning can be as stressful for kids as it is for their parents, observes Emily Weiland Spaeth, an elementary music teacher also at the Elisabeth Morrow School. She has seen the benefits of Smith’s early morning gym class.

“From the minute they wake up, kids are being rushed to get dressed, eat breakfast and get in the car,” Spaeth says. “Having a chance to do something physical before school starts is actually very centering because they have an opportunity to focus on themselves for a moment rather than following Mom and Dad around or chasing after an older brother.”

Pair Exercise with Class Content

So what type of physical exercise provides the best morning brain boost for young minds? Smith and Pica both recommend activities that incorporate movements that engage both sides of the brain (for example, touching the right elbow to the left knee). “Cross-lateral movements require focused attention, which is the best preparation for learning,” Smith says.

If your school doesn’t have an organized time for morning physical activity, Pica suggests having your students start the day jogging or marching in place — activities that send a boost of nutrients to the brain. Smith recommends beginning the lessons with students standing next to their desks and participating in a cross-lateral movement while reciting content from a lesson learned the previous day.

Amy Wright, an elementary school principal in the Snoqualmie Valley area of Washington State, encourages the primary grade teachers in her building to link physical movement to purposeful content as part of their classroom instruction. “We want to get kids active and moving, but we also want that activity to be linked with learning.”

Asking students to physically act out scenes from a book or poem, demonstrate vocabulary words or form geometric shapes with their bodies makes the learning less abstract and contributes to comprehension and long-term retention, Pica says.

“Using movement is a great way to teach through the back door,” Spaeth says. “While my students are marching around working on song lyrics, they’re also learning concepts like tempo or dynamics. They don’t always even know they’re learning.”

Use these tips to get your K–5 students moving toward better learning.

Linda Morris Gupton is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, NC. Find her on Google+.

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