Child doing pushup at home on mat.

Using Physical Activity to Boost Learning

Try these tips to help students bolster their physical activity during remote learning.

We all have been there, sitting in front of our computer during an online meeting, wondering when it will end. And when it does, what’s the very first thing that you do after the meeting? Some might breathe a sigh of relief and close their eyes for a second, others get up and go to the kitchen for a post-meeting snack, and others might complete their transaction on Amazon that they were doing instead of paying attention to the meeting. No matter the choice, each of us has dealt with fatigue from online instruction.

Set Boundaries and a Routine

In March 2020, when my school shifted from face-to-face instruction to online instruction, I found myself working more than I have ever worked. I was always connected to my classroom because I needed help adjusting to new demands of the online format. Technology and specifically email have made teachers accessible 24/7. I felt like Pavlov’s dog: Every time I heard the beep, I would my email. It was a lifestyle that I could not keep up as much as I loved my students.

I needed to set boundaries and set up a routine for myself and my students, so that’s just what I did. I would teach each morning and then I would turn off my computer and do some meditation to clear my mind. In the afternoon I would teach another class and then I would go outside and walk. I would log online later in the day to prepare for the next day and respond to late day emails, followed by a workout routine. In the evening, I removed all technology. My phone was in the kitchen, the TV was off, and I relaxed with a book and some tea. If faculty are dealing with the stress and fatigue of online learning, what must students be feeling?

Get Moving

Research has shown that there is a link between acute bouts of physical activity and cognitive function. Therefore, teachers should begin each class by getting students up and moving. This might be a stretch, a brain break, or even some light marching or jogging. Research also shows that students who have acute bouts of physical activity showed positive changes in classroom behavior, concentration, and performance in solving math problems.

As educators we recognize the need for instruction, the pressure for students to succeed, and the requirements of standardized testing. As physical educators, we recognize the need for movement. Schools should provide a balance; as any educator knows, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to teaching and learning.

Limit Screen Time

Screen time has been a major issue with children even before the switch to online instruction. Increased screen time has been linked to increased obesity, sleep issues, and poor academic performance. To counteract these issues, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents to create a plan to limit screen time outside of school and promote children to get at least one hour of physical activity a day. Accomplishing this during a pandemic becomes a challenge, but it’s not impossible.

Teachers and schools find ways to limit academic screen time and increase physical activity engagement for students as a part of the regular school day, even in an online learning environment. Physical education (PE) teachers have gotten very good, very quickly at finding appropriate methods for engaging online students in a variety of physical activities. Some argue that it cannot be done; we disagree. Over the past 7 months, we have participated in high-quality online physical education lessons, webinars, workshops, and even conferences. Given the appropriate support and technology, physical education can take place online.

Get Creative

Quality physical education programs are key to student health and wellbeing, whether they are face-to-face or online. Physical education teachers are trained to teach students how to perform and understand basic motor skills, to participate in game play, to engage in lifelong physical activities, and to enhance their social and emotional wellbeing. Physical education teachers are responsible for addressing these skills on a continuum of ability levels for all students, as well as supporting and developing the social and personal skills related to participating in physical activities.

Physical education teachers must now become more creative and proactive in their lessons to help promote physical activity, teach skills, and encourage students to get 60 minutes of physical activity a day, but they must also be supported by their schools. A quick online search brings up a significant number of YouTube videos that PE teachers from across the nation have been creating so their students can practice and learn new skills at home. These include basic locomotor skills such as skipping and leaping, throwing, and catching skills, jump rope skills, sport specific skills and more.

In addition, teachers can create interactive Bitmoji gymnasiums where students can engage with technology at the same time they are learning about various sports, skills, and even tactical awareness of games. Many teachers are using “gamification” as a way to engage students in virtual PE classes and allow students to learn both synchronously and asynchronously.

Show Support

We do not know how long we will be dealing with remote learning, and perhaps in some instances it will be here for good. Either way, it is important for schools to provide elementary PE teachers with the time and resources necessary to engage students in this critical aspect of school life. School administrators can support teachers by encouraging physical activity brain breaks in all subjects. Physical education teachers should follow a standards-based curriculum complete with assessments in the physical, cognitive, and affective domains.

By following these suggestions, we all can support the health and wellbeing of children and who will reap the health benefits now and in the future.

James Barry, Ph.D, is an assistant professor, Secondary and Physical Education, at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland.

Ingrid L. Johnson, Ph.D., is professor/program coordinator for Health and Physical Education Teacher Education at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.