It’s 9 am and 15 third graders straggle into the gym for physical education class, something students in grades 1-5 do, on average, 3 days a week at our school. (Students in grades 6-12 take phys. ed. once or twice a week.) We form a wide circle and begin a gentle warm up. “Stand with your arms and legs stretched wide apart!” I instruct them, taking a quick inventory of each child’s alertness and energy level. One boy looks like he’s had a rough morning, his eyes are red from crying. Another child is wiggling her hips and grinning from ear to ear. She’s wearing a paper crown covered in stickers (it’s her birthday) and is raring to go.
Today we are working on bilateral brain activity and large motor skills, but the children won’t realize it. They think we’re just going to stack cups in a relay race. I divide the class in groups and blow the start whistle. Instantly, three little bodies fly across the gym floor to their designated stations where they attempt to stack a half dozen colorful plastic cups before racing back to tag the next person in line. The task is not as easy as it sounds, especially when you’re hurrying. The children laugh and shriek as the cups fall over. Even the child who barely made eye contact earlier is fully engaged. They are having fun. But something else is happening, something important: Their brains are growing, creating new cells, and increasing neural connections.
The importance of exercise in brain function is well documented. Research has shown that regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise improves memory, focus, and mood. This is why schools need to offer physical education classes to students from preschool age to high school.
And let’s not forget recess! Schools that eliminate recess because they want to build more classroom time into the day are shortchanging students of much-needed stress relief. Whether they recharge their batteries through physical activity or by finding quiet time to read, daydream, or chat with friends, students need recess to help reset their brains. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention touts the importance of “safe and well supervised” recess in improving students’ cognitive, social, emotional, and physical well being.
Back at our relay race the children celebrate their accomplishments. They are flushed and sweaty. One of the teams won the race but it doesn’t seem to matter to the children as they collect their coats and we escort them back to their homeroom teachers who, like the kids, have used their "down" time to regroup and reset the course for a productive day.
How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains, New York Times, Oct. 8, 2014
The Crucial Role of Recess in School, American Academy of Pediatrics, Reaffirmed Aug. 2016 (originally published Jan. 2013)
Regular Exercise Improves Memory, Thinking Skills, Harvard Health Letter, Nov. 29, 2016