Studies Prove: When Kids Move to Learn, They Do Better in School

Plus 4 ways to infuse movement into homework time.

A child’s natural inclination to move all day might not fit with the traditional school system in the US, but studies have proven again and again that asking those little people to sit still could be hurting them both academically and health-wise.

In fact, they excel when they move while they learn! Not surprisingly, those who get study breaks to get their wiggles out also do better in school. Their test scores improve while they develop healthier habits that help curb childhood obesity. Here’s what recent studies have shown:

1. Exercise Is ADHD Medication

An article from The Atlantic’s Dr. James Hamblin examined a study from the Journal of Attention Disorders that found just 26 minutes of daily physical activity for eight weeks significantly allayed ADHD symptoms in grade-school kids. The modest conclusion of the study was that "physical activity shows promise for addressing ADHD symptoms in young children."

"This brand of research is still published and written about as though it were a novel finding, in part because exercise programs for kids remain underfunded and under-prioritized in many school curricula, even though exercise is clearly integral to maximizing the utility of time spent in class,” said Dr. Hamblin.

Electrophysiological plots representing brain processing capacity and mental workload (P3 amplitude) during cognitive tasks that require executive control in children in the experiment and control groups. Red represents the greatest amplitude, and blue the lowest. (Hillman et al, Pediatrics/The Atlantic)

2. A three-year study in 24 elementary schools showed when exercise is part of the lesson, kids test better in math, reading and spelling scores

physical activity academic performance graph - Fully Blog

Researchers at the University of Kansas found that physically active academic lessons (PAAC) of moderate intensity improved overall performance on a standardized test of academic achievement by 6 percent, compared to a decrease of 1 percent for control groups. The study was supported by the Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (PAAC) project, which provided academic lessons across disciplines that incorporated exercise or movement.

Geometry may be taught by having the students form different shapes, such as squares or triangles while walking or skipping on an outside playfield

  • Geography (north, south, east, west) can be taught by having children run to the appropriate area designated for one of the directions. If Texas is called, students will run or skip to the south space.
  • A floor mat with alphabet letters printed on it could be used to teach spelling, where the children spell out words by hopping onto the letters. The scope of physically-active lessons is virtually limitless

1 in 6 school-age children in the U.S. is obese

In the United States, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s.National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases data from 2015-2016 shows that nearly 1 in 6 young people ages 2 to 19 in the United States is obese.

And according to the State of Obesity, roughly 2 out of every 5 US high school students (43 percent) spend three or more hours a day using a computer, playing video games, or on social media.

“I find that in my practice, about one-third of my patients are either overweight or obese,” said Dr. Tiffany Nguyen, pediatrician and Certified Lifestyle Medicine physician at Texas Children's Pediatrics. State-by-state data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) also reflects this. “Across the board, I found that kids who move more, doing teams sports or martial arts, swimming, or running, tend to have better BMIs, as well as perform better academically.”

The University of Kansas study found that kids participating in PAAC lessons saw a significant improvement in BMI from baseline to three years. Children who spent more time in PAAC activities  (as determined using the System for Observing Fitness Instruction Time [SOFIT] and teacher self-report) showed a lower rate of BMI increase over the 3 years.

Pediatricians, teachers, and parents see these results anecdotally, too

Dr. Nguyen has seen similar results with her own patients.

I had a middle-school aged patient, a boy, whose parents were complaining he would fidget too much during homework time,” shared Dr. Nguyen. “They’d nag him to sit still and get his work done, even yelled when he fidgeted too much. It got to the point where the boy was doing his homework late at night, likely because everyone else was asleep and therefore couldn’t nag him about his fidgeting.

His mom found him later, having moved his traditional desk chair aside, bouncing on an exercise ball and typing away. He’d also taken breaks to work on some LEGO sets and work on his drawings.

When he received his grade for the assignment he’d been working on, his parents were surprised to learn he’d earned an A. It turned out the combination of moving his body freely, and taking key mental breaks, meant he was able to do his best work.

Dr. Nguyen has heard this story many times from parents, including many whose kids have been diagnosed with ADHD. And every time, when she encourages families to embrace their kids’ energy and help them channel it into learning through movement, to encourage mental breaks, and to lessen the pressure on kids, she consistently hears that everyone is less stressed and the child’s academic performance improves. For more ideas, check out “Developing Good Homework Habits” from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

La Conner, Wash., high school teacher Ryan Hiller found that a Tic Toc stool allowed his students to move without disrupting the class while encouraging learning and attendance. He says:

I had one Tic Toc in my high school classroom, and the students would rush to class so they could be the first to grab it! Proclaimed as, 'The best stool ever,' the Tic Toc allowed students to rock and move without being disruptive. Typical classroom chairs are hard, don’t adjust in any way, and are just plain uncomfortable. The Tic Toc, in addition to encouraging movement, has a height adjustment, and as one student said about the seat, 'I love how it’s shaped perfectly for my [backside].' With the cushion now available for Tic Tocs I would risk the students never leaving!

Fully customer Michelle has also seen the Tic Toc stool help her two children, one with ADHD and the other with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), focus better in school:

Two of my kiddos were struggling to stay focused and engaged in their classroom settings — my son in third grade, and daughter in first grade. My son has ADHD combined, and exhibits high impulsivity and has difficulty focusing and staying on task — this includes lots of wiggling.  My daughter has high anxiety associated with OCD, and has trouble transitioning from one task to another – this includes lots of fidgeting and body movement to self-ease her anxiety.

We had been working with their respective teachers and school counselor to come up with accommodations to help both kids stay in class and focused for as much instructional time as possible.  For example, my daughter had a chart with transition points during the school day, and would receive a sticker at each successful transition. My son had student learning buddies in class, and was seated close to the teacher and front of the classroom to help with focus and staying on task.

When I was introduced to the Tic Toc, and sat to test it out, I realized that it required a certain amount of focus from the user. It was also fun to be wobbly, keep balance, and spin. I spoke with the school about the accommodations we had planned, and asked if the kids would be able to bring in special chairs to help them with focus and fidgeting.

The school was very open to the idea, and soon both kids had a Tic Toc as their primary “chair”  at their school desks. A couple of attributes that made the Tic Toc chairs work well include:

Adjustable height – the Tic Toc could be adjusted to match the kids’ size so that their feet would touch the ground, as well as fit within the existing desks

Light weight – the kids could easily carry and move the Tic Toc on their own

Natural color – blended well into the classroom setting, minimizing potential negative social stigma of having a “special”  chair

Cool/fun look and experience – other kids wanted to try it out and thought the Tic Tocs were cool and fun to use

User focus – the Tic Toc requires focus to stay balanced; and worked as a natural fidget tool

The Tic Tocs were successful in the classroom, and the teachers reported that my kids were able to stay seated at their desk and participate in more instructional classroom time than prior to having the Tic Tocs available. My kids enjoyed their “special”  chairs, and reported that the other kids wanted one too. My son created a rotation program, where he would pick a classmate each day who would get to use the Tic Toc for one of the day’s lessons. It became a fun perk for the third grade class.

 

How Parents Can Help: 4 Tips to Fuel Homework with Movement

Even if a child’s school does not embrace movement-based curriculum or scheduled movement breaks throughout the day, there’s a lot of families can do at home. Dr. Nguyen shared her tips for infusing movement into your child’s study and homework time:

The CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend children and adolescents do 60 minutes or more of physical activity per day. It can be moderate (like brisk walking) or vigorous (like running).

Be sure to include muscle-strengthening activities and bone strengthening activities, which can be part of their 60 active minutes.

1. Make movement and exercise breaks part of studying

I recommend taking a break every 30-40 minutes for children, 60-90 minutes for adolescents. A break should be about 10 minutes and include muscle-strengthening activities like gymnastics or push-ups, as well as bone strengthening activities like running or jump rope. Vary the movement to keep it fun, and add music whenever you can. The more senses kids engage, the more energy they can gain. You’ll also see their mood likely improve. If you’re encouraged by the University of Kansas study, design a space where your child can study or do homework while they move. You can empower your child’s study environment with the right furniture: exercise balls, chairs that rock and sway, and adjustable height desks all allow kids to get into a rhythm that channels their natural fidgeter energy directly into their learning.

2. Make sure movement break ideas are age-appropriate

All movement is good, but it’s also important to engage children in activities they can both do and that keeps them interested based on their age and development level. Here are some ideas specific to age groups:

Toddlers and preschoolers

— Play ball

— Hide and seek

— Walk and move like different animals

— Dance to your favorite music together

— Play follow the leader

Check out even more ideas from the American Academy of Pediatrics on games that are great for preschoolers.

Grade Schoolers (5-12 years)

— Gymnastics

— Climbing a tree or playing on a jungle gym

— Jumping rope

Playing tag with family or friendsThe CDC has more great ideas for active kids, as does Primal Play.

Adolescents

Bouncing on an exercise ball

— Yoga stretches increase flexibility and mindfulness alike. Yoga with Adriene has some great exercises. You might start with Yoga For Flexibility and Yoga For The Classroom.

A circuit of burpees, push-ups, lunges

Tidying up around study space

Taking a quick shower

Regular, structured sports programs, especially those that integrate weight training, like basketball or football.

Martial arts and swimming are also great ways to encourage self-discipline along with body conditioning.

Here are more great ideas for adolescent activities from the CDC.

3. Set a good example and move with your kids

Parents can help shape their children’s attitudes and behaviors around exercise and movement. Active parents tend to raise active kids, so find ways to participate in their study breaks, and get active as a family on the weekends.

Make weekday and weekend family routines. An opportune time is after dinner; instead of TV watching, encourage your child to play.

Try family walks, games and bike rides

Walk or bike to and from school

Don’t forget, mowing the lawn and frisbee throwing count too.

Find formal and spontaneous activities for kids, including team sports, individual sports, and recreational activities that your kids will like. Even weekends at a swimming pool and playground can break up more organized sports.

4. Opt for play over TV

Children today are growing up immersed in digital media (TV, computers, smartphones, and other screens). Almost 75 percent of teens own a smartphone that they use to access the internet, watch TV and videos, and do anything for which there’s an app. Four out of 5 households own a device used to play video games.

According to the AAP, Teens who watch more than five hours of TV per day are five times more likely to be overweight than teens who watch zero to two hours. Children 4 to 9 years of age who watch TV for more than one-and-a-half hours per day are at risk for obesity as well. This may be due in part to the fact that viewers are exposed to advertising for high-calorie foods, as well as a tendency to snack and overeat as they watch.

The AAP recommends no more than 120 minutes of screen time a day, and to avoid advertisements—and no TVs in children’s bedrooms.

Rather than turning on the TV after dinner or homework, opt for a family walk or a game, outside or inside, that helps them move. It can also be a great transition from dinner to homework, giving them a physical outlet before they need to sit for an hour.

Even a little more movement in your family’s day can lead to healthier, happier, more confident kids. Follow their lead to wiggle, tap, bounce, and hop — you’ll likely find the whole family feels better and learns better because of it.

 


 

About Dr. Tiffany Nguyen

Tiffany Nguyen, DO, FAAP, is board certified in Pediatrics and Lifestyle Medicine. She has practiced medicine at Texas Children’s Pediatrics in Houston, TX, since 2003. She went to medical school at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine and did her residency at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. She is an avid foodie, loves hiking, is a mom to two kids, plays the flute and is a “reformed one-shoulder backpack wearer.”