Physical activity is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle for children, and schools can play an influential role in helping students engage in physical exercise and play. We’re going to look at the importance of physical activity in schools and discuss some ways you can put this information into action so you can help your students do better in school and develop healthy habits they carry with them into adulthood.
Benefits of Physical Activity in Schools
Before we discuss some ways you can promote physical activity among the students at your school, it’s important to understand why physical activity should be a priority in the first place. After all, schools already have a lot on their plates helping students learn and develop academically and socially.
So, why is physical activity important for students? The answer comes down to a list of valuable benefits — benefits that extend beyond physical health. According to research collected by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), physical activity is tied to improvements in:
- Mental health: Mental health is an important aspect of children’s development and, though it is a separate issue deserving of its own attention, tends to go hand in hand with physical health. Regular physical exercise decreases the likelihood that children will deal with depression or anxiety. Mental health issues can directly impact students’ academic performance. According to Children’s Mental Health Ontario, a third of Ontario parents have said their child has missed school at some point due to anxiety.
- School attendance: Since regular physical activity contributes to overall health, active students are less likely to miss school due to an illness. As we’ll see, some students also miss school for mental health issues, which physical activity can hedge against, as well. Missing school, even as early as first grade, can indicate an increased likelihood that students will drop out of school eventually. Attendance is critical so students stay on track with their class and receive a complete education.
- Memory and concentration: Research has demonstrated that physically active children have greater ganglia and hippocampus capacities — parts of the brain associated with memory and cognition — compared to children who are more sedentary. Being able to focus better in the classroom and retain more of the information taught can help children make the most of their education. Improved memory and concentration can also help students in other areas of their lives.
- Classroom behavior: Physical activity during the school day can also help students behave better in the classroom. Especially for younger children, sitting still, listening and following instructions can be a real challenge. When students feel fidgety or distracted, it can be harder for them to behave. Physical activity helps students satisfy their need to move and play so they’re better prepared to focus and listen when they’re in the classroom. Some research even suggests keeping kids active can help prevent bullying.
- Academic achievement: In addition to looking at individual factors, we can also see a direct link between physical fitness and higher grades. Because of the many cognitive benefits students gain when they’re physically active, higher academic performance is a natural by-product. It’s also true that physical activity can lead to higher grades in the immediate future. A study found that children who were active 20 minutes before a test tended to earn higher scores.
The benefits don’t stop here. Staying active as children and adolescents can also help set students up for a healthier future as adults. Regular physical activity helps students build strong bones and muscles, improve their cardio-respiratory fitness, maintain a healthy weight and avoid future health problems such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
With so many proven benefits, physical activity should be an important part of every child’s day, both at home and at school.
Ways to Promote Physical Activity in Schools
Since physical activity helps students in so many ways, parents, educators and school administrators must partner to facilitate and encourage physical activity among students. Let’s look at 10 strategies for promoting physical activity in schools:
1. Inform Students of the Benefits
Promoting exercise in schools can start with educating students on the benefits we discussed above. By informing students of how impactful physical exercise is to their health and wellbeing, as well as their performance at school, we can motivate and empower them to stay active. This is especially important for older students since they’re more capable of understanding the research on physical activity’s benefits and tend to have more say over how they spend their time at home.
2. Inform Parents of the Benefits
Parents can also play a vital role in helping their kids stay active, especially when it comes to younger children, so schools should find opportunities to educate parents on just how beneficial physical activity is for their kids. Encourage parents to limit the time their children spend in front of a television or computer screen and instead plan activities for the whole family that involve physical exercise, such as a bike ride or a hike. Parents may also want to enroll their children in extracurricular activities to help them stay active.
3. Prioritize Physical Education Classes
Physical education courses give students the opportunity to get some exercise during the school day and can help them learn healthy habits for leading active lifestyles. Physical education classes that teach sports and other team-building games add a social component to physical activity that can make it more fun and meaningful for kids. Physical education classes can play an influential role for students who otherwise live sedentary lifestyles.
4. Build Time in the Schedule for Recess
Recess is another important way you can promote physical activity at your school. Whereas physical education courses are structured, recess should focus more on free play. There are various models for recess you can implement at your school. It could be one recess period in the afternoon or a series of short recess periods throughout the day. However you choose to include it, make sure your school builds time into the schedule for recess so it is not crowded out by other things.
5. Upgrade Your Playground Equipment
Having rundown or limited playground equipment does not communicate a commitment to fostering active play at your school. So, take a look at your playground equipment and consider whether it could stand to be replaced, or whether you should add some new equipment. Remember that not all playground equipment is created equal. Look for playground equipment that is durable and designed to aid in children’s development and to encourage inclusivity during recess.
6. Include Physical Movement in the Classroom
Teachers can help students stay active by incorporating physical movement into their lesson plans. For example, teachers can set up learning stations at the four corners of the room and have students walk to each station as part of the lesson. Even if teachers are intimidated by the idea of incorporating physical activity into their lesson planning, they can simply have students stand up periodically during class to stretch or “get the wiggles out” so they can focus.
7. Host Sports Events
Sports can be a fun way for kids to stay active. However, some kids don’t have the interest or time to dedicate to being on a sports team. That’s why it’s a good idea for schools to host sporting events beyond their normal sports games. For example, you could host a fun run, a sack race or an obstacle course for students to participate in. You can also form recreational sports teams for older students who enjoy sports but are intimidated by the thought of being on a varsity team.
8. Lead by Example
Students, whether they’re small children or adolescents, learn by example, so do your best to be a positive role model when it comes to staying active. Teachers can tell their students what they like to do to stay active outside of school hours. Administrators can take part in events your school hosts to promote physical activity.
9. Celebrate Students’ Healthy Habits
Positive reinforcement is a proven strategy for teaching children to repeat certain behaviors, turning them into habits. Physical activity should be a key part of children’s lifestyles, so using positive reinforcement to help them form healthy habits is a great strategy. Find ways to praise students for prioritizing physical activity at home and for their accomplishments in sports or physical education classes at school.
10. Let Students Inspire Each Other
Students can also be inspired by one another, so it’s a good idea to use positive reinforcement to encourage all students to be active as well as reward individual students. Teachers can ask their students what activities they took part in over the weekend or can ask students to share ideas for how they like to get exercise when they’re not at school. Do they rollerblade? Play catch? Do gymnastics? Praise students for being active and see the ripple effect it creates.
School-Based Programs to Increase Physical Activity
The benefits of physical activity in schools are well-documented, and yet, amidst many other important parts of the school day, physical activity can fall too low on a school’s list of priorities. Though most schools incorporate physical activity in some way, it can become an afterthought — 31% of Canadian schools don’t even have a policy in place for daily physical activity periods for students.
Your school can increase physical activity among your students through several school-sanctioned programs, including physical education classes, recess and before- and after-school programs. Let’s take a look at each of these programs.
1. Physical Education Classes
In Canada and many other countries, physical education courses — once a staple part of most schools’ curricula — have been overshadowed by an emphasis on academic performance in core subjects. More time dedicated to these subjects mean less time dedicated to physical education, but many researchers have pointed out the flaw in this strategy — that students’ academic performance can suffer from being less active.
Physical education courses aren’t just helpful for improving students’ academic performance. These classes can also help students develop physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively.
For some kids, a physical education class may be their primary source of exercise. For overweight or obese children, in particular, taking part in a physical education class for at least 18 minutes a day can more than double their chance of becoming and staying physically active.
If your school’s physical education program is lacking, your school might need to reevaluate your priorities when it comes to the role of physical activity in children’s education. Be sure to offer physical education classes that encourage healthful habits students can take with them beyond the gymnasium or playground.
Recess gives students the opportunity to get physical exercise and use their creativity by engaging in free play. Despite the proven benefits of recess, just like physical education classes, recess has become an afterthought for many schools that feel the pressure to focus more on academics. Even just 15 minutes dedicated to recess a day can help children behave better in the classroom, so any recess period is better than none.
However, even if your school already has a recess period, you may still be able to make improvements to help students benefit more from recess. Some Canadian schools have tried dedicating more time to recess and seen positive results.
For example, according to recent legislation, Quebec elementary schools will start including two 20-minute breaks for recess during their school days. This new requirement came after a survey determined that 40% of elementary schools in the province were currently dedicating less than 30 minutes to recess a day and that 20% of schools didn’t include afternoon recess at all.
A small school in Alberta, inspired by the Finnish education system, made an even more radical switch to four recess breaks a day and found that students were better able to focus and self-regulate when they were in class.
In addition to dedicating more time to recess, make sure you have quality playground equipment that will encourage students to engage in active play. Inadequate equipment can keep elementary students from getting the most out of recess.
3. Before- and After-School Programs
Before- and after-school programs can also provide an opportunity for students to become more active. The CDC suggests implementing physical activity clubs, intramural sports, interscholastic sports and physical activity in extended day programs. Incorporating a range of physical activities for students to choose from before and after school makes it more likely that they’ll find a program that’s a good fit for them.
Providing physical activities gives students an opportunity for exercise, and it can help them discover activities they enjoy and may participate in as hobbies for years to come. A student may discover they have a passion for soccer, track or another activity they try at school.
If you’re looking for ways to increase physical activity in schools that don’t take away from the normal school day, you can invite private organizations to host before- or after-school programs at your school that encourage students to stay active. Since students should get 60 minutes of activity a day, and time dedicated to physical education classes and recess may be limited, before- and after-school programs can help them achieve this one-hour goal.
Promote Physical Activity at Your School With Equipment From PlayPower Canada
Quality play equipment designed with students’ development in mind can make recess more fun and beneficial for students and encourage them to be more active. PlayPower Canada understands how important physical activity is for children, and we’re dedicated to providing a range of options and custom solutions so you can create the perfect playground for your students. Contact PlayPower Canada today to learn more about how we can help you promote fun and educational physical activity at your school.