I think most of us know that movement is important to helping all children learn, especially those that have trouble focusing on their learning activities. In fact, this was one of the reasons we chose to homeschool, so that our children didn’t have to sit at a desk or table for long stretches of time. But what kind of movement is best for children to help them learn and focus? I found in our school days, that sometimes our movement breaks would get us completely off-track and it would be difficult to transition back to our learning activities. Once I thought of this great math fact obstacle course and it ended up blowing the rest of our day because my little guy COULD NOT settle down afterward. Sigh…. Since then I have done a bunch of research and have found several approaches to movement that we all can incorporate into our school days that will give children the break they need and then return with increased focus rather than getting off track.
Walk or Bike Ride
Start the day with a walk or bike ride. Research shows a 20 minute walk will increase focus for about two hours. Running or skipping during this time had a similar effect. Another mid- morning and/or mid-afternoon walking or bike riding break can get everyone back on track and ready to focus for another two hours.
In Classroom Movement Breaks
Pick a few of these to do at the beginning of the school day to get the brain ready for learning and/or as quick movement breaks between learning activities. We like to take a 10 minute break every hour so sometimes we work a couple of these movements in then. If I feel like I am ‘losing’ my boys during a learning activity, I also may stop in the middle of it and have the boys do one or two of these and then return to our work. And to avoid overwhelm, I would just introduce one or two of these a week.
Crossing Midline Exercises: Exercises that require children to cross the midline will target using both sides of the brain together.
1) Raise your knee and bring the opposite elbow to touch it. Alternate sides for a total of 10 knee lifts.
2) Touch hand to opposite toe. Spread arms out wide during this. Alternate sides for a total of 10 toe touches.
Back-to-Front Movement: These exercises help children coordinate the back and front areas of the brain, which is important in maintaining attention.
1) Scissors lunges: Have your child put their hands on the wall with one foot near the wall and the other leg stretched out behind them in a lunge. Then have them jump their feet into the opposite position. Have them slowly repeat this 10 times. Once they become good at this, have them step away from the wall and swing the opposite arm along with the movements. So if the right foot is in front, the left arm should be swung in front.
2) Passing ball back over head down a line of people: This is one of our favorite movement activities. We line up, myself included, tallest to shortest. I take a 4 lb. medicine ball we happened to have and pass it backwards over my head to the child behind me who then does the same to pass it to his brother. They then pass the ball back up. Encourage your children to tip their head backwards as they are handing the ball the person behind them and then bend forward when passing the ball to the person in front of them. An exercise ball can also be used for this.
Engage the Core: Having a weak core can lead to inattention and difficulty focusing. It also affects fine motor control, which impacts handwriting. Here are some ways to strengthen and bring awareness to the core muscles.
1) Kneel on all fours and extend the one leg straight behind you and the opposite arm straight in front of you. Hold 5-10 seconds and then switch for a total of 10 extensions.
2) Push-up position and bring one knee up toward the opposite elbow. Slowly switch legs for a total of 10 times.
3) Superman: lay on your stomach, spread arms out into a Y shape and lift arms, chest, and feet off of floor and hold as long as possible. Working up to one minute is a good goal. You can see from the picture below, this is not an easy task! Sometimes mama joins in for a little ab work-out!
Yoga Poses: Yoga has been shown to decrease anxiety and increase attention in people. We need both of these in our school day! If you feel your child’s frustration is increasing with an activity, taking a quick yoga break can help. Hold each pose for a few deep breaths or for as long as you need to.
1) Child’s pose: Kneel on the ground, sit back on heels and then lay upper body forward. You may stretch your arms out in front of you or keep them by your sides.
2) Down dog: Kneel on all fours and then straighten arms and legs, pushing your bottom toward the sky and your heels toward the floor. Line up your ears along side your straight arms. Hold for as long as comfortable. You can go down to all fours and then come back up a few more times if more relaxation and focus is needed.
3) Tree: This is a standing pose to target balance. Lift and bend one leg, placing the bottom of the foot on the opposite leg. The goal is to place it above the knee, but you may need to start lower. Knee should point out to the side as much as possible. Bring hands together in prayer position, interlock fingers except for index and thumb, which will point up and then slowly move them toward the sky. Repeat on other side.
4) Leg Up Wall Pose: Lay on your back with your bottom near a wall and extend your legs straight up along the wall. Place arms by your sides. This is especially good for decreasing anxiousness.
Exercise that requires a lot of structure and focus on specific skills can decrease focus in the short-term, but helps improve attention skills in the long-term, as well as the ability of the brain to switch between tasks and improve self-control. So afterschool and weekend activities such as sports teams, gymnastics, taekwondo, swimming, etc. are great for developing focus, attention, and self-control. You just might not want to practice them during your school day.
Charles Hillman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has studied how physical activity improves children’s attention in school and test performance.
The Integrated Learning Strategies Learning Corner contains information about movements that improve learning.
Maria Chiara Gallotta at the University of Rome in Italy found that twice-weekly sessions of coordinative exercises, such as basketball, volleyball or gymnastics practice, over the course of five months helped children do better on tests that required concentration and ignoring distractions.
Tracy and Ross Alloway, both at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville found that activities such as climbing trees, crawling along a beam, or running barefoot, improved working memory.
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