Top Teaching > Ruth Manna > Wake Up Brains With Exercise!

Comments: 9

Wake Up Brains With Exercise!

Students exercising

At a time when schools are canceling recess for more reading and math instruction, the best test prep may be exercise. Getting students up out of their seats wakes up and enlarges their brains!

Recently I’ve visited classrooms in which students have excellent self-control. They sit up straight in their chairs and work quietly, but their lack of movement is noticeable and worrying.

As teachers there are times during the school day when we can and should promote movement.

Brain Gym

Do Brain Gym Exercises — In mid-morning my class does Brain Gym exercises, which I learned from an occupational therapist. Many Brain Gym exercises, such as “Touch your elbow to your opposite knee,” cross the midline and help handwriting skills develop. We do Brain Gym exercises right before our handwriting lesson to train our brains, as well as to relax and focus. You can get information about Brain Gym on the Brain Gym Web site or locate a resource book like the one pictured above.

Run at 2 p.m. — At 2 p.m. I give students an exercise break to increase their focus and attention for the last hour of the school day. Every day at 2 p.m., weather permitting, my students line up at the back door. I give a series of instructions, turning the playground into an obstacle course. For example, I'll say, “Run to the fourth maple tree and touch the trunk, then run behind the red swings and touch the green ladder on the big slide,” usually giving them about five steps in all. Students take turns leading the group. Sometimes I use a stopwatch to encourage racing. Those who tire easily walk part of the way, but everyone completes the course.

Add Joy to Your Classroom — One benefit of impromptu exercise is that it brings joy into a classroom. Yes, school is serious business, but a few minutes of exercise put a smile on students’ faces. 

Get Parents’ Support — Most parents understand the importance of exercise, but mention the connection to learning and brain development at this fall’s parent-teacher conferences. Reprint one of the articles referred to below, or copy a list of Brain Gym exercises for parents to take home. A parent may tell her child to sit right down after school and complete his homework, while 30 minutes of exercise first would make homework time more productive.

Discover What Experts Say — Read “The Fittest Brains,” by Gretchen Reynolds, in the September 19, 2010, issue of the New York Times Magazine or a New York Times article entitled “Phys Ed: Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter?” You might also read the abstract of the University of Illinois study of the connection between brain development and aerobic exercise in children. Finally, visit Brain Rules, a Web site by Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. With a sense of humor he illustrates how "exercise improves cognition" and "stress changes the way we learn." Son of a fourth grade teacher, he also claims that, "If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would  design something like a classroom."


  • #1 Ruth Manna

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 07:38 PM

    Katie, I agree about the arts. Teachers need to work to integrate the arts into their curriculum. When you ask adults what they remember about elementary school, it's the arts.

  • #2 Katie Carroll

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 10:44 AM

    Ruth, I am so glad you brought up creative play in your #5 comment. I think that includes time not just during recess or lunch, but also during art classes - drama, music, etc. It encourages right brain thinking and often has them up out of their seats interacting each other.
    I actually found this post because I read an article comparing Reynolds' article to arts education ( and wanted to see what the rest of the chatter has been. Thanks for the conversation!

  • #3 Ruth Manna

    Thursday, October 07, 2010 at 07:37 PM

    Thanks for your comments. Exercise helps all of us relax. It brings joy into a classroom too.

  • #4 orthopedic emr

    Wednesday, October 06, 2010 at 03:33 AM

    I found this post really informative.. You have the best point! Exercise can really help us to be physically and mentally fit. Thanks a lot!

  • #5 Ruth Manna

    Sunday, October 03, 2010 at 07:02 PM

    Yes, recess and free play are important too. Children need time for creative play and time to develop social skills and friendships.

  • #6 Tregony

    Friday, October 01, 2010 at 07:10 PM

    The best form of active exercise for children is free play. All adults are supposed to get a lunch time break - recommendation 1 hr - with 2 15 min breaks morning and afternoon.

    I agree wholeheartedly that children need to exercise & be physically active to develop their brains and learning but please tell me in between all this directed activity children get some time to do what they want?

  • #7 Ruth Manna

    Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 05:46 AM

    Thanks, Jennifer and Marianne, for your positive additions and ideas! Glad to know that other teachers out there agree. I've also used exercise balls as chairs pulled up to desks for students with ADHD. We have Sit and Move cushions, to make it easier for students to wiggle in their chairs.

  • #8 Marianne Eileen Herzog-Bazin

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 07:49 PM

    AMEN, AMEN, AMEN!! A middle school instructor with certifications in English 6-12, Elementary ED K-6, ESE K-12, French K-12, DANCE K-12, Music K-12, and Drama 6-12; I AGREE WHOLE HEARTEDLY with the use of movement to HARNESS, DIRECT, and CHANNEL ENERGY in a positive manner to enhance learning!

    I encourage you to please write more about this subject. I have always believed in using the body to enhance learning! Movement helps relieve "pent up energies"; creates "calm", no matter the age or student profile, "mainstream" or "ESE". I believe movement is a reflection of the psyche; show me one who moves with vigor and excitement, and I will show you a person with an active and vibrant mind!

  • #9 Jennifer Harper

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 07:47 PM


    I am so happy to see your posting. I whole-heartedly believe that children have to move to learn best. I've read research, too, that indicates that most humans can sit and attend for about 20 minutes and then they have to do some sort of movement before being able to really attend fully.

    Our DOE actually did all of their Language Arts, Math and Science Teacher workshops one year to include movement and demonstrated how easily it can be incorporated. Every time I teach a subject there is a part that we are moving to.

    In my classroom, every student uses a fitness ball to sit on and we work in 5 minutes here and there for exercise, especially during tests and more stressful times of the year. I also give the students a class choice every day of either Mindfulness (relaxation) exercises or dance. I have two DVDs that we can pop in our classroom computer and project up to the screen the dance DVDs for everyone to follow along. They are easy and the kids love them.

    I also try to educate my parents every month in my newsletter around increasing activity levels. I've even posted some great links on my web page.

    Thanks for writing about this topic.

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