It’s the era of students in motion. Gone are the days when they had to sit still until gym class or recess. Enter some K-12 classrooms across the country and you’ll find exercise balls instead of chairs, standing desks instead of sitting ones, and movement welcome, even in math class.
For example, at Wilder Elementary in Louisville, Ky., a privately-funded effort called “Let’s Move Wilder!” added new equipment such as standing desks and bouncy bands (which strap to a desk so students can stretch their feet back and forth while sitting) to classrooms for the new school year. And a 3rd grade teacher at Wetumpka Elementary in Wetumpka, Ala. has raised money over the last two years so her students can ride exercise bikes and sit on exercise balls during lessons.
The increasing trend to add kinesthetic or movement-based equipment to schools is a push to keep students active while they learn. A study by researchers at Texas A&M University, released this week, shows that standing desks can improve elementary students’ body mass index.
After observing 24 classrooms in Texas over two years—half of which used stand-biased desks (which allow students the option to stand or sit on a stool), the other half traditional desks—researchers found that 3rd and 4th grade students who used the standing desks decreased their BMI by an average of 3 percent. Even students who spent one year without a traditional desk had lower BMIs than those who sat.
Exercise has also been linked with improved learning, such as direct correlation to reading fluency and memory, according to EdWeek blogger Bryan Toporek in a recent Schooled in Sports post. And after a one-year pilot program that used pedal and standing desks at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Va., teachers noticed improvements in student concentration and cooperation, principal Lynne Wright told CNBC. Two public school teachers in West Caldwell, New Jersey, found similar results with their students after they received a grant to purchase standing desks.
“Things like talking when you weren’t supposed to be talking, fidgeting with some kind of object on your desk, standing around the room and moving at not great times—all of those undesirable behaviors decreased by incredible amounts,” Jennifer Emmolo, who teaches at Wilson Elementary in West Caldwell, told CNN.
That some teachers and parents are trying to increase activity in the classroom shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, as many schools have cut back on gym class. The 2016 Shape of the Nation report found that only two areas nationwide—the state of Oregon and the District of Columbia—mandate the nationally recommended levels of physical education in schools (150 minutes per week for elementary students and 225 minutes per week for high school students). And only 37 percent of states demand a set amount of time for physical education in elementary school.
The push for exercise in the classroom is often independently shaped by teachers, parents, and community members—and the initiatives are not cheap. At Oakridge Elementary, parent Heather Sauve joined with the school to raise $9,000 for equipment from a company called Kidsfit, according to CNBC. She estimates that the cost is about $1,700 per classroom. A nonprofit called Stand Up Kids, founded by Juliet Starrett, a parent in California, is working to get every public school student nationwide a standing desk within 10 years.
But teachers don’t necessarily need equipment to get students moving. Educator Susan Griss, the author of Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching Elementary Curriculum, wrote in a 2013 article for Education Week Teacher that any type of movement during academic lessons—physically engaging with the content through acting or other creative body motion—helps students develop confidence and teamwork skills, and visualize what they are learning.
“For the sake of awakening and engaging our students in today’s stressful, high-stakes academic climate,” she wrote, “teachers can find new inspiration by embracing kinesthetic teaching.”
Image source: Texas A&M University Health Science Center
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.