There is a documented connection between physical activity and cognitive function. Two studies published by Psychology Today in 2014 found that physical activity can improve cognitive function over the course of people’s lives. One study from the University of Minnesota determined that young people who run or participate in aerobic activities maintain high level thinking and memory skills into middle age, and a second study from Finland found middle aged people who are active protect themselves from dementia as they grow older.
This research demonstrates a positive relationship between physical activity and cognitive function, something that is especially important in kids. This connection is tied to hormonal balance, the release of cortisol levels, dopamine, serotonin and the rest of the feel-good and alertness hormones that are important to survival and learning.
The brain/body connection is very well established, and physiological research also shows that thoughts and ideas can be triggered or suppressed based on too little or too much physical activity. What is both interesting and odd is that there seems to be so little recognition of the brain/body connection in the methods of how we teach kids.
They traditionally have been told to sit, be still, and learn in a passive, one-directional way, although that is changing. Today there is more collaboration and active learning modalities implemented in schools than ever before, even though the basic model is still the “sit-and-get” modality.
Developmental and physical mechanisms
In cognitive assessments, educators are looking at factors such as intelligence, and perceptual skills in areas like verbal tests, math tests, and memory. These are categorized as learning or development mechanisms. A second category is physiological mechanisms. An interesting and important-to-note takeaway is that physical mechanisms serve to get more blood, and obviously more oxygen, to the brain. More blood and oxygen to the braincauses structural changes to neurotransmission and the central nervous system around triggers like intellectual arousal, for example.
Physical activity impacts learning and developmental mechanisms through these changes in neurotransmission and through concepts like social-emotional learning which primes kids to be better learners because of feelings of security and safety. Bringing physical activity into the learning environment helps create social-emotional learning and helps kids become mentally prepared to a master a skill or memorize something.
These two systems work together. The interplay between the physical activity and the emotional response to that movement, when there’s the optimal amount of physical activity – not too much, not too little – there’s a cascade of positive effects that increases cognition rates and primes kids to become better learners.
In the 1930s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget unveiled his theory of cognitive development for kids that outlined how kids experience discrepancies between what they know and what they discover on their own. Children are well-adapted at constructing their understanding of the world based on what they experience to develop a mental model of the world. That model is constantly changing as kids process more. Piaget’s theory explained that kids can’t really make that mental model without being physically involved in the learning environment. One painful example would be falling off a bike and skinning a knee. That is an important learning experience for a child, and a huge part of teaching the risks associated with riding a bicycle. Piaget argued that kids can’t be coddled or held with velvet gloves, but rather they have to be allowed to out, be physically active, and embrace the world.
Impacting the learning environment
What does this mean in the learning environment? The typical design is very computational, very sensible. It’s all squares and rectangles from doors and windows to classroom layout because it’s easy to design from an engineering perspective. Of course, the world isn’t computational at all. It’s very fractal. No two trees look exactly alike. Leaves are all different. The natural world is the exact opposite of the learning environment of the typical school.
One obvious solution is getting outside and being exposed to the sun, trees, and grass. Some schools are taking this idea to heart and creating outdoor classrooms and learning environments. Of course, this is not always possible or even preferable.
One way to make learning more physical is through classes like art, sciences, and makerspaces where the outcome isn’t a written answer, but instead a physical representation of the answer requiring a hands-on response.
School furnishings can also have a physical impact on the school day. For example, a sit-stand desk that lets learners choose between the ability to stand for part of the day or sit at the desk like they would in a typical classroom. Chairs without backs means kids have to engage their core, stomach muscles, and thoracic spine creating an automatic brain/body connection to the simple act of sitting.
Another is a fairly traditional looking chair with a very flexible back. This allows kids to fidget. These micromovements are a form of physical activity. Learners can sit in their chairs and bounce and exert some physical engagement which will prime cognitive performance.
Naturally, physical education and sports are important aspects of getting kids physically active at school, but there is plenty of opportunity for physical activity in the standard, day-to-day classroom. When kids have the ability to move, work with their hands and be collaborative, they become more willing to engage in content and their cognitive ability improves.
This week’s vlog is about the connection between physical activity and learning in the classroom and the research behind this. Learn from Mark Hubbard, Paragon’s President, and stay tuned for our upcoming vlogs and blogs.These blogs and vlogs are aimed to help K-12 schools create environments that foster active learning and enable it to flourish.
Watch now, and tell us what you think in the comments section below. Be sure to keep up with us on social media to stay updated on new insights from our team!
Come back next week when Mark discusses Sensory Ergonomics.
Are you a school looking to transform your learning spaces?
Well, you’ve come to the right place. Each week, Mark Hubbard Paragon’s President, will be posting a 2-minute vlog that aims to help K-12 schools create environments that foster active learning and enable it to flourish. We are calling the vlog series, “Transforming K-12 Learning Spaces”.
This week’s vlog is about Collaborative Learning. Watch now, and tell us what you think in the comments section below.
Come back next week when Mark discusses Sensory Ergonomics.
In this week’s transforming K-12 learning spaces vlog, Mark Hubbard shares some tips on redesigning your school library.
As the purpose and function of school libraries evolves, transforming the physical space to accomodate these changes becomes imperative.
With some thoughtful planning and a touch of creativity, you can design vibrant, 21st century library spaces that serve as a central hub for digital teaching, learning and research in your school.
Let us know what you thought about this post in the comments section below and please share new topic ideas.
Next week’s topic is about Maker Spaces. We’ll discuss how to create a maker space in your school.
Thank you for joining this week, and thank you for supporting Paragon Furniture.
In this week’s transforming K12 learning spaces vlog we will continue to explore how learning space design affects student success, but this week we will put the emphasis on design elements such as color and texture.
How the elements in our environment affect us emotionally is referred to as “sensory ergonomics,” and it’s just as important as physical comfort.
Factors such as color and texture can affect a student’s mood significantly, and decades of research suggest this can influence a student’s ability to focus or succeed.
Next week’s topic is about Redesigning School Libraries. Mark will discuss how to transform traditional school libraries into vibrant 21st century learning centers.
Thank you for joining this week and as always, thank you for supporting Paragon Furniture.
When you are designing a maker space, you’ll want to make sure the space promotes creativity and collaboration. You can encourage both of these traits through the design of the space itself. How do you do that? Watch this week’s vlog post entitled, “How Do You Create A Maker Space In Your School” by Mark Hubbard.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is an educational concept based on teaching kids key elements including self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsibility to improve their emotional well-being and ability to learn. Basically, it’s teaching kids how to get along in the world with a focus on the necessary skills from an emotional perspective to become a better learner.
The concept is relatively new as a formal part of thecurriculumand has grown as an education topic because of the increased focus on the emotional health of students. Kids are stressed out right now. They are dealing with things like school shootings, their phones, the divorce rate and bigger economic divisions between students, not to mention how learning has become metrics-driven with students facing performance indicators like assessment test scores. Social-emotional learning has grown in prominence because schools recognize students’ stress level is high. Schools know they need to provide safety and the ability to understand others before learning can happen.
Does SEL work? Research from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASL), a noted SEL curriculum provider, found the academic performance of students exposed to an SEL program averaged 13% higher than non-SEL peers, and conduct issues, emotional distress and drug use was significantly lower for students who went through SEL programs.
The importance of the physical environment
The learning environment is never neutral. It will either assist or detract from the learning experience. The environment can say something to a person and speak to your senses as a human being through things like the amount of natural light that’s getting into the room and the hardness or softness of the furniture. All of these things are contributing to your emotional reaction to the world you live in whether you are at home or in a classroom.
The impact of the physical environment is what most interests me about social-emotional learning. Let’s say a school district has committed to teaching SEL. That commitment means there’s a recognition SEL is an important part of the learners’ journey, and the teachers’ journey as well.At that point, what does the learning environment say about the importance of SEL?
It can be easy to talk a big game about providing kids more emotional fortitude and better understanding of themselves and others. That sounds awesome and makes sense, but if the physical environment where they are applying these newly learned skills isn’t conducive to reinforcing those concepts, the impact of social-emotional learning is greatly hampered.
For example, collaboration is key part of relationship building and management and a key part of social-emotional learning as well. If you’re in an environment that doesn’t have furniture that allows you to easily collaborate – such as allowing you and me to sit across from each other practicing and exercising the things we’ve learned about relationship skills – that’s a problem. Ideally chairs and desks and tables should be easy to move and get into a physical orientation that facilitates collaboration.
Even the basic layout of the classroom can have an impact on SEL. A core message of social-emotional learning is that relationships matter. When we have a classroom where all the desks are aligned in perfect rows and everyone is looking forward and no one is looking at each other, does that reinforce social-emotional learning? No, that says something completely different to the students in that classroom.
Students may be under more stress and pressure than ever, but schools are using social-emotional learning to meet this challenge. Because the environment is never neutral, taking the physical space into account should be an important aspect of a social-emotional learning curriculum.
There are so many classroom seating options out on the market today – recognizing what to look for will certainly help narrow the search.
This week Mark Hubbard discusses what to look for in K12 student seating.
Thank you for watching.
You can have really powerful experiences with kids and not spend a lot of money on your maker space.
Watch Mark this week as he discuss, “Tips for Equipping a Maker Space on a Budget”.
And thanks to Convergence Design Lab for allowing Paragon® to showcase one of their maker spaces in this vlog post.
Making the shift to active learning can be a big transition for many teachers, especially if they have been lecturing for their whole careers.
For one thing, it involves giving up some degree of control over their classroom and transferring ownership of the learning process to the students themselves—and this shift can be accompanied by a profound sense of loss.
Teachers with little or no experience in leading active learning strategies might find it somewhat intimidating to try a new teaching style. They may feel anxious about looking vulnerable in front of their students if something goes wrong.
These are legitimate concerns stemming from genuine emotions. Introducing change of any kind often makes people uncomfortable, and when you add in the fact that teachers are performing their jobs in front of an audience every day, that anxiety becomes even more magnified.
Leading a successful transition to active learning requires understanding and addressing the emotional implications of this change for teachers. Here are three important change management strategies that can help K-12 leaders do this effectively.
- First, Clarify the purpose. Make sure all staff members understand why you are asking them to make the change, and how it will help them become better educators.When they understand the benefits of doing so, and how active learning can engage students and lead to independent thinking and deeper learning, teachers will be more likely to try it in their classrooms.
- Next, Provide direction. When you give teachers a clear road-map for change, and you communicate and support them throughout the process, then you remove some of the barriers that might discourage them from trying—such as anxiety that they won’t know what to do or how to do it.
- Lastly, Apply pressure and support. Pressure is anything that makes it harder for teachers to continue doing what they were doing, and it can range from simply asking them to change, to making the new behavior a part of their professional evaluation system. Support would be anything that makes it easier for teachers to try something new, such as bonuses, incentives, training, or even overt permission to take risks without having to be perfect.
In Paragon’s resource guide entitled, “How to Lead Active Learning in Your Schools“, you can read more about making the shift to active learning and how to manage the change with teachers and students.