Kinesthetic learning activities are taking place in several schools in the Charleston County School District in Charleston.
David Spurlock is 63 years old, a former baseball and football coach with a bum shoulder and bad back and right now he's busy planning a jailbreak. He has spent a lifetime walking the hallways, classrooms and athletics fields all across Charleston, his home town. Those classic images of school-aged children sitting still in desks organized into neat rows? Spurlock calls it "educational incarceration."
"We put kids in a 2x2 cell and dare them to move: ‘Keep your feet on floor and hands up where I can see them,'" says Spurlock, the coordinator of health, wellness and physical education for the Charleston County School District. "That sounds like being incarcerated to me."
The educational model is broken, Spurlock says, and the key to fixing it is applying some of the most basic principles of sport and exercise. Students in some Charleston area schools sit on desks that double as exercise equipment, they enroll in "advanced PE," receive regular yoga instruction and visit specially equipped learning labs each week where the line between education and physical education disappears entirely.
"If you went to anybody who's in education, you say PE versus instruction, they say instruction every time," he says. "But what we're trying to show is that more movement equals better grades, better behavior, better bodies."
One recent morning at Charles Pinckney Elementary, 28 children, all ages 9 and 10, rolled through the door in a single file, bouncing and giggling as they plopped onto the tile floor.
"Welcome back to Active Brains," said Bobby Sommers, their teacher for the next 50 minutes. "Today we're going to review the rules, procedures and expectations for a successful year. Then we'll also go over all the station equipment one more time and practice using it correctly, okay?"
It was still early in the school year, and the fourth-grade students were eager to begin their weekly session of Active Brains. Far from a traditional classroom and not quite PE, it's one of several initiatives in Charleston County schools that rely on exercise and movement to make students better learners.
The posters on the wall read "Fitness not sitness" and "Exercise grows brain cells," and Sommers's young audience is captive. The fourth-year teacher walked the students through 15 stations - including the exercise bikes, the stair-climber and the mini-basketball hoop - and drilled them in the academic task associated with each one, usually flash cards or some sort of math or spelling challenge.
Pinckney Elementary and Charleston County schools are particularly progressive in incorporating physical activity in classroom instruction. Study after study shows that exercise can play a major role in learning - effectively turning the brain on, keeping the motors turning and growing its capacity - but physical education has been trending downward, as many schools prioritize their needs in the face of academic demands and standardized testing. Many school districts have been de-emphasizing PE since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, says John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and others even before that.
"The whole issue is time. It's not money or equipment or more PE teachers. It's the time the kids have scheduled," says Ratey, who authored the best-seller "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain."
"Most of the country is now trying to get involved with Common Core and leaving exercise and physical activity by the wayside. That's unfortunate."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children engage in at least one hour of physical activity each day. The American College of Sports Medicine, on its annual report card on physical activity by U.S. children last year, issued a D-minus, finding that just a quarter of children ages 6-15 are active for 60 minutes a day. As electronics become more pervasive, youth sports participation also has fallen nearly 10 percent since 2009, according to the Sports & Industry Fitness Association.
While the science suggests these trends are having a profound impact on the health of a nation, Ratey says children aren't reaching their academic potential either. He has watched studies flood in from all over the globe in recent years, strengthening the link between exercise and learning, but the implementation in American classrooms hasn't kept pace.
"You have 50,000 school boards, and each school board makes up their own minds," he says. "You have to convince those people that this is a worthy addition for all kids - for improving their learning capacity, as well as their physical and mental health."
Spurlock watched from one corner of the Pinckney classroom as Sommers demonstrated the final activity station and the kids then scattered in all directions.
Dave Spurlock, director of physical education and health for the Charleston County School District demonstrates a balancing ladder in a 'Brain Room' at Stiles Point Elementary. 'You could say it's chaos,' Spurlock said, 'but there's really no chaos about it.'
Spurlock has established more than a dozen of these labs - he calls them "brain rooms" - across Charleston, and helped other schools incorporate kinesthetic principles into their regular classrooms. For Spurlock, it's all still in the early stages. Five years ago, he began studying other school districts and saw the way action-based learning was being used in high-performing schools. But Charleston has unique challenges. Its population is diverse and 70 percent of the city's kids attend a Title I school, which means at least 75 percent of a school's students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 15 percent of kids 5 and under in South Carolina are overweight. Among adolescents, one in six is considered obese. The stats are even higher at the Title I schools, which have a larger percentage of low-income families. In the Charleston County School District, nearly half the Title I student are obese.
Spurlock knew Charleston students had just 50 minutes of PE a week - an average of 10 minutes a day. Concerned about health as well as education, Spurlock thought academic performances would improve if the students were engaged in physical activity throughout the course of a school day. "I had to change the paradigm," he says.
Spurlock got to work. An old coach turned salesman, Spurlock is the kind of man who flies up a staircase two steps at a time, who can spin a yarn with Southern charm but also cut straight to the point. When he visits schools he's been around his entire life, the stakes, he says, couldn't be higher.
"This is unbelievably hard to sell," Spurlock says, "especially here in Charleston. Here's why: Teachers have a job to do, and they've got to get all this instruction in.
If they don't, they haven't done what they're supposed to. So they can see this as something frivolous."
Spurlock started with a single "brain room" at Mitchell Elementary, outfitted with a variety of exercise equipment along the room's perimeter: balance boards, exercise bikes, a treadmill, boxing gloves and a punching bag, even a rock-climbing wall in one corner. They all face television monitors, which teachers use for visual aids. The idea was simple: The students could exercise while teachers taught.
In addition to the brain room, Spurlock introduced "advanced PE," in two middle schools, a morning class that targeted students with bad grades and worse attitudes. They informally called it "puke PE," and it was intended as an hour of physical exertion that would help propel students through the day armed with biochemistry weaponry that helped them focus and avoid behavioral hiccups. The results were mostly anecdotal, but Spurlock reports reading levels soaring and disciplinary referrals plummeting at all grade levels, and began trying to expand the programs into other schools. An elementary school called Stiles Point raised nearly $50,000 through fundraisers last year and had two activity labs installed in the spring, one for younger students and another for the older ones. Teachers are still learning how to best use the rooms or even understand why they can be important.
"Change is hard to come by and it's slow, but the teachers who've gone in there and seen it have been saying, ‘Woo, I'm going back as soon as possible,' " vice principal Ashley Dorsey said.
At nearby Harbor View, the equipment is incorporated into every classroom. In addition to clusters of traditional desks, each room features equipment specially made for children that incorporates a variety of movements. There are desks with bicycle pedals, a stair-climber, a spinning seat, a balance board, a glider that mimics cross-country skiing motion. "I don't think kids realize there's a health benefit," principal Lara Latto said. "They just think it's fun."
Some schools are canceling recess.
But this North Carolina grade school is going in the opposite direction: Kids ride bikes as they read.
Elementary school has always looked a little bit like training for a traditional office job: You show up at 8 or 9, sit at your desk, and fill out paperwork for most of the day. An average third grader might spend as much as six hours sitting in the classroom--only a little less time than the average office worker spends sitting at work. But as more offices realize that sitting all day long is actually pretty terrible for health and productivity, how long will it take schools to catch up?
While some elementary schools no longer have recess, and people like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie argue that school days should be even longer, a few schools are already moving in a different direction. Some are testing out standing desks, and realizing that a little bit of activity can actually improve attention spans. Others, like Ward Elementary in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are starting to fill classrooms with exercise bikes, so students can work out while they learn.
The Read and Ride program at Ward began five years ago. One classroom is equipped with enough exercise bikes for a full class of students, and teachers bring students throughout the day to use them. As they ride, they read. The combination burns calories, but it turns out that it also helps students learn better. As the elementary school analyzed testing data at the end of school year, they found that students who had spent the most time in the program achieved an 83% proficiency in reading, while those who spent the least time in the program had failing scores--only 41% proficiency. Some classrooms at the school also have an extra bike in the corner, so kids who can't sit still don't have to. Teachers also use time on the bike as a "reward" that happens to benefit the students. "Riding exercise bikes makes reading fun for many kids who get frustrated when they read," says Scott Ertl, who started the program. "They have a way to release that frustration they feel while they ride." Using the bikes also gets students to exercise when they might not otherwise want to in gym class. "Many students who are overweight struggle with sports and activities since they don't want to always be last or lose," Ertl explains. "On exercise bikes, students are able to pace themselves and exert themselves at their own level--without anyone noticing when they slow down or take a break." Over the last five years, the Read and Ride program has expanded to 30 other schools.
A perfect stranger pours her heart out to me over the phone. She complains that her six-year-old son is unable to sit still in the classroom.
The school wants to test him for ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder).
This sounds familiar, I think to myself. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I've noticed that this is a fairly common problem today.
The mother goes on to explain how her son comes home every day with a yellow smiley face. The rest of his class goes home with green smiley faces for good behavior. Every day this child is reminded that his behavior is unacceptable, simply because he can't sit still for long periods of time.
The mother starts crying. "He is starting to say things like, ‘I hate myself' and ‘I'm no good at anything.'" This young boy's self-esteem is plummeting all because he needs to move more often.
Over the past decade, more and more children are being coded as having attention issues and possibly ADHD.
A local elementary teacher tells me that at least eight of her twenty-two students have trouble paying attention on a good day. At the same time, children are expected to sit for longer periods of time.
In fact, even kindergarteners are being asked to sit for thirty minutes during circle time at some schools.
The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Lets face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.
I recently observed a fifth grade classroom as a favor to a teacher. I quietly went in and took a seat towards the back of the classroom. The teacher was reading a book to the children and it was towards the end of the day. I've never seen anything like it. Kids were tilting back their chairs back at extreme angles, others were rocking their bodies back and forth, a few were chewing on the ends of their pencils, and one child was hitting a water bottle against her forehead in a rhythmic pattern.
This was not a special needs classroom, but a typical classroom at a popular art-integrated charter school. My first thought was that the children might have been fidgeting because it was the end of the day and they were simply tired. Even though this may have been part of the problem, there was certainly another underlying reason.
We quickly learned after further testing, that most of the children in the classroom had poor core strength and balance.
In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared to children from the early 1980s, only one out of twelve children had normal strength and balance.
Only one! Oh my goodness, I thought to myself. These children need to move!
Ironically, many children are walking around with an underdeveloped vestibular (balance) system today--due to restricted movement. In order to develop a strong balance system, children need to move their body in all directions, for hours at a time. Just like with exercising, they need to do this more than just once-a-week in order to reap the benefits. Therefore, having soccer practice once or twice a week is likely not enough movement for the child to develop a strong sensory system.
Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to "turn their brain on." What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to "sleep."
Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.
In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.