by Louise Goldberg
When entering an elementary school classroom, visitors commonly find a list of rules posted:
Raise your hand.
Stay in your seat.
Speak only with permission.
These rules make the classroom manageable; it would be anarchy without them. But what teachers and parents often don’t realize is that every one of these requests is completely contrary to the nature of a young child. Children don’t sit. They jump and dance and roll and climb and run. They’re not quiet. They laugh and scream and giggle and sing and make noises. And when they are required to obey these rules for lengthy periods without a break, children are forced to deny their instincts and suppress their very nature.
Most scientists agree that human beings are not meant to be immobile. In his book, Brain Rules (2014), John Medina points out that early civilizations walked many miles each day, hunting, fishing and using their bodies to survive. Movement, he asserts, is essential for physical and mental well-being and improved attention. In fact, excessive sitting causes weakness in the postural muscles (the ones that hold us upright) and increased tension in the neck, shoulders and lower back.
Kids need to move. Their nervous systems benefit from a reset after sedentary periods to combat sluggishness. Mindful movement has been shown to lower stress levels, improve resilience, promote sensory processing and improve body awareness. Play teaches children about boundaries, promotes communication and supports social/emotional learning. Research suggests that increasing physical exercise during a child’s day improves not only scholastic performance but sleep, overall fitness and self-esteem.
Yet there is scarcely a place where children can run and play freely—certainly not in the halls at school, not even at recess—that is, if they even have recess. New schools are often built without playgrounds to lower costs. What’s even more surprising is that many overscheduled kids don’t know what to do at recess: some schools have had to hire “recess coaches” to teach children how to play dodgeball and tag. Free play is becoming a lost art.
With increased emphasis on high stakes testing and grades, many schools view recess, field trips, class parties, physical education and the arts as an interruption of time deemed more valuable for test preparation. A backpack full of homework often displaces free time at home. This pressure to succeed in school may start with the very young. Even though scientific research points to better learning when children are in more playful, happier and less-demanding environments, many early education programs have shifted from play-based curricula to more directed learning.
Between homework and technology, it’s increasingly common to find teens immobilized in front of some sort of screen—sometimes for as much as nine hours per day—according to a 2015 study by Common Sense Media Inc. These researchers have found that excessive screen time correlates with teen anxiety and depression. They recommend periodic technology “fasts”, outdoor activities, face-to-face interactions and physical exercise to break these patterns.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website (2018) asserts that even moderate exercise lowers stress and anxiety levels, elevates self-esteem, increases strength and improves endurance, builds stronger bones and muscles, maintains weight and may help regulate blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In addition, the CDC finds that regular physical activity correlates with improved school performance, including better grades, behavior, concentration, and attentiveness to schoolwork. Childhood and adolescent inactivity, however, can lead to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
While busy parents may be hard-pressed to add another activity to their children’s days, schools may be able to address this challenge by incorporating movement within the classroom. Biologist and educator Carla Hannaford explored the relationship between learning and movement in her 2005 book Smart Moves. She shared stories of children with severe learning challenges who made extraordinary academic and social leaps once liberated from their desks. She implemented two-minute breathing and exercise breaks to foster self-regulation, reinforcing her belief that moving, playing and interacting with others is a necessary component to learning.
In fact, exercise has been shown to improve executive function—the ability to plan, schedule, switch tasks and stay focused while in a highly stimulating environment—according to a 2006 study by Dr. Charles H. Hillman and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana.
Implementing classroom yoga and breathing exercises resulted in lower levels of cortisol in elementary school students, as reported by Butzer et al (2015). Dr. Stephen Porges maintains that even a few simple movements can bring about significant changes within the nervous system. By shifting one’s position from seated to standing for a few moments, he explains, the vagus nerve can be activated and stress levels lowered. Standing next to their desks in class and moving their bodies often helps kids return to work with increased clarity and focus. Taking a few guided side stretches or deep breaths throughout the day can lower stress levels and prevent tension from escalating.
There are many reasons to get kids moving. By incorporating simple breathing techniques and exercise within a child’s day, parents and educators can help them reduce anxiety, better regulate their emotions and improve school performance. Kids who exercise tend to sleep better and have greater resilience. And getting them off their screens and interacting with others helps reduce the loneliness and isolation that may precede adolescent depression.
Louise Goldberg is the owner of Yoga Center of Deerfield Beach. She leads 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Trainings and Kids Yoga Teacher trainings. She is the author of Classroom Yoga Breaks (2017) and Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs (2013), both published by WW Norton. For more information, visit YogaCenterdb.com.