While the debate on whether to bring back recess to school curriculums continues across the U.S., a small study from the Netherlands once again shows that adding exercise to a child’s school day can improve their learning skills.
Researchers worked with 500 children in second and third grade, giving half of them traditional lessons while the rest received instruction supplemented with physical activity designed to reinforce math and language lessons.
The approach was a creative and unique way to helping children better comprehend math and spelling. Instead of taking a recess break – exercise was actually incorporated into the lesson.
After two years, children who got the physically active lessons had significantly higher scores in math and spelling than their peers who didn't exercise during class.
"Previous research showed effects of recess and physical activity breaks," said lead study author Marijke Mullender-Wijnsma, of the University of Gronigen in The Netherlands.
"However, we think that the integration of physical activity into academic lessons will result in bigger effects on academic achievement," Mullender-Wijnsma added in an email to Reuters Heath.
Mullender-Wijnsma and colleagues developed a curriculum that matched typical lessons in academic subject matter but added physical activity as part of instruction. They tested it in 12 elementary schools.
Here’s how it worked.
Lessons involved constant practice and repetition reinforced by body movements. For example, children jumped in place eight times to solve the multiplication problem 2 x 4.
Children in the exercise group received 22 weeks of instruction three times a week during two school years. These lessons were up to 30 minutes long, and evenly split between math and spelling instruction.
During the first year of the study, there wasn’t a great deal of difference found between the students receiving exercise during the class and those that didn’t, when speed was the focus in the math tests.
However, after two years, children who received exercise-based instruction had significantly higher scores on the math speed exams than students who didn't. The difference over two years equated to more than four months of additional learning for the students who had physically active lessons.
When the focus was on lesson comprehension, students receiving exercise outperformed students who did not receive the exercise instruction in both the first and second year. Again, the progress amounted to about four more months of learning.
For spelling, there wasn't a significant difference between the student groups after one year. But by the end of the second year they did have significantly better test scores, once again, adding an additional four more months of learning.
For reading, there wasn’t much difference between the two groups. It's possible that physical activities may be more beneficial to learning that involves repetition, memorization and practice of lessons from previous classes, the researchers conclude.
Researchers did point out that there were limitations that could have impacted the results of the study during the first year. The exercise group received specially trained teachers and individual schools administered the tests.
The research team did not examine why exercise might have helped students do better during tests.
Sara Benjamin Neelon, of Johns Hopkins University and colleagues write in an accompanying editorial that it’s not clear whether these types of classes would work in countries where the population is larger, more diverse and students come from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
"However, the take-home message for parents and teachers is that physically active lessons may be a novel way to increase physical activity and improve academic performance – at the same time," Benjamin Neelon said by email.
More and more studies show that exercise appears to help the brain function better in children and adults. Whether all U.S. school administrations will see adding recess or exercise back into school curriculums is anybody’s guess, but according to science – it sure couldn’t hurt and might even help students develop stronger learning skills.
The study was published in the online journal Pediatrics.
Story source: Lisa Rapaport, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-children-fitness-learning-idUSKCN0VX26V