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Exercise & the Brain: A Movement Based on Movement Is Taking Shape in Colorado Schools

On the basketball court outside of Red Hawk Elementary in Erie, Colorado, masses of young students are jumping, dancing and waving their arms. Nothing to raise eyebrows you might say, except that these students move and groove on a daily basis at Red Hawk. And every Friday, their parents, teachers and principal Cyrus Weinberger move right along with them.

“One of the cornerstones (of our school) is certainly our movement program,” says Weinberger. “We believe it’s important to let kids move and enjoy school. If you do those things, you’re going to get much more mileage out of students in the classroom.”

The early data — and mountains of other research — back him up. Eighty-eight percent of Red Hawk third through fifth graders say they look forward to coming to school, 90 percent plus of parents are excited their child attends Red Hawk, and they were the only school in the district last year that improved 100 percent on all tests, at every grade level, in every content area.

And Red Hawk isn’t the only school in Colorado exercising this notion of movement and improved learning. In Jeffco, the SPARK initiative has been underway since 2012 at five participant schools — Conifer High School, Carmody Middle School, Falcon Bluffs Middle School, North Arvada Middle School and Kendallvue Elementary School. The objective:  To develop and implement a research-based program that will target academic outcomes via strategic exercise and academic scheduling. The results thus far are mostly anecdotal, but very promising.

““Interviews with teachers who had SPARK students were overwhelmingly positive,” says Emily O’Winter,  district healthy schools coordinator for Jeffco Public Schools, “with enthusiasm for the initiative, the concept behind the initiative, and the impacts on student behavior and academics.”

Jeffco’s program — and Red Hawk’s to a certain extent — is based on the book Spark, by Dr. John Ratey. The basic premise is that exercise is the single best tool we have to optimize brain function. And this goes double for kids who are trying to learn.

“The research shows, and most of us know by experience, that kids need to move to be engaged learners,” says O’Winter. “Some more than others, but all humans need daily physical activity for our minds and bodies to be in optimal working condition.”

“And most children in Colorado are only getting a fraction of their daily recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA),” she explains. “On the other hand, teachers reported that SPARK participants with previous focus challenges became more engaged in classes immediately following SPARK, that behavior and engagement issues decreased and even social challenges decreased. Healthy students make better learners.”

Though this was once common knowledge, we’ve long been moving away from this basic tenet of being human. We’re a sedentary, lazy society by and large, and we’re obese. Especially our kids. And especially in Colorado. But hope is not lost.

What Jeffco and Red Hawk are finding is that a little movement goes a long way, and what little resources exercise takes — the majority of a program can be implemented for free with the right buy-in from parents and staff —is well worth it.

Red Hawk has incorporated physical activity into their overall philosophy, and students get 35 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on a daily basis, in addition to scheduled PE classes and recess. In-class movement sessions take place during a 20-minute block in the morning and in the afternoon before math and science, considered the most challenging academic subjects.

“I just think the thing that’s exciting about this program is that it could be employed at every school in America,” says Weinberger. “It could be a transformative piece for education in general.”

And it’s not overly complicated. Think jump ropes, burpees, dance moves, cones, and jumping jacks, for example.

“Whatever it takes, we need to get our kids moving more in school if we want to optimize the learning process and give them a chance to reach their full potential,” echoes O’Winter. “The key is buy-in: The research is out, now we need more people to genuinely understand and use it.”

You heard ‘em, time to get moving!

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