Exergame Fitness Advisory Board Member “Dan Lawler” speaks about implementing Exergaming in Schools….
A year ago, I was able to implement an Exergaming lab in my school. It was one of the most exciting interventions I had ever experienced in over 30 years as a principal. Unfortunately, I retired before I could see the expected benefits that the lab would create for the all the students in the school. After a year of students and teachers being actively engaged in the lab, I wanted to hear, from representatives, what their thoughts and impressions were. Research had certainly given us strong reasons to expect more focused students, higher achievement, better behavior, and a more fit student body. In order to find some of the answers to my questions, I conducted the following interviews with people directly involved with the lab.
Terry Deniston, Ph.D., is a fourth grade teacher. Jane Harvey is the wellness coordinator who runs the lab. Students ( 4th graders Dylan, Ryan, Brooks and 3rd grader Zack) also offered their views. In addition, I interviewed one parent to get her impressions of the lab. All of them were very helpful in giving me their insights into the success of the lab.
Terry Deniston, Ph.D.
Terry, what were your expectations for the lab when the idea was first presented?
I expected just a few pieces of equipment (e.g. DDR, Wiis, Xavix’s) because these were things which I had seen around the building before the lab was built. I was really nervous about having the lab be an integral part of our school because of my previous negative experiences with physical education.
I anticipated students being really excited about having the Spark Lab. From the research and our building-wide conversations, I expected that the Lab would significantly impact student learning and reduce our behavior issues in classrooms.
As the year progressed, what impact did the lab have on your students and on the school?
Students were thrilled to have the Spark Lab! They almost immediately asked for the Spark Lab as a reward for “good” behavior. For one of my students who has special needs and struggles with peers, the Spark Lab became a positive intervention when she was able to invite friends to join her to exercise. We also had the same student going to the Spark Lab prior to math class which prepared her for learning. All of my students not only had fun in the Spark Lab, but also grew in their confidence around their own fitness. Other students, who were average in their academic abilities, were able to become “champions” on different fitness stations. Hearing their classmates chant their names when they broke records was one of my favorite parts of my students’ experiences in the Lab. More than ever, I was able to see students start to notice, as they tried different pieces of equipment and began to experience success, that they felt good when they were physically active. Finally, my students’ achievement, as measured by a district standardized assessments, showed significant improvement.
The impact on our families was also powerful. Our parents are proud that we have an Exercise 4 Learning Lab, one of the only ones in the country. We are also able to attract many families because they see this innovation as one they want for their children, and, consequently, they choose our school for their children to attend.
Our school has benefitted in other ways. One of the benefits, which we had discussed but wasn’t “real” until the first frigid day, was a place for students to go when it was too cold for outdoor recess. Students were freed from their classrooms and able to boost their brains and bodies by moving. Also, our schedule was such that our students often had the Lab as part of their weekly schedule, so we doubled our fitness time.
How did the lab impact the overall climate of your classroom and the entire school?
In my classroom, my students expected to see brain breaks and the Spark Lab on our weekly schedule. My students’ confidence and positive attitudes about being physically active increased. I had fewer discipline problems, and I had another intervention to use for students who were struggling either because of academics or challenging behavior. In all my years of education, I have never seen such a powerful innovation for my students and for me.
For our school, daily exercise became a given. We also moved away from withholding recess as a form of punishment for either not doing their work, or behaving inappropriately in class. Instead, we had a Wellness Coordinator who worked with staff to design options to get kids focused and ready to learn.
What do you know now that you want others who are thinking about an Exercise 4 Learning Lab?
- I, as well as my students, need to use the Lab to help me with daily stress, have a positive attitude, and to boost my energy and readiness to learn and teach.
- It’s important to be able to explain how the lab is directly connected to learning.
- Having a champion for this kind of work and administrative support is critical for school-wide acceptance and to best utilize what the research shows to benefit students.
- Generous companies will inspire and train students, staff, and families to use the equipment.
- Having the Exergaming equipment in one place honors the work, provides an additional identity for the school, and assures a school-wide shared experience.
- It may sound greedy, but I also want some of this “stuff” in my classroom (e.g. standing desks, DDR, treadmills).
- It may change your life. It did mine. As a person who used to fear PE and lack confidence in my abilities, it has been transformational to experiment with the equipment and integrate physical activity into my classroom. In fact, in a professional development training, I actually led a movement/activity game. After doing so, one of my fellow participants asked if I was a PE teacher! When I was in PE, there were only a few stars. With our Lab, it seems everyone finds a place to be successful.
Jane, what were your expectations for the lab when the idea was first presented?
When I first heard about the concept of the lab, I was unsure of how a lab such as this would positively affect the students. I said to myself, “Are you crazy!” I began to read the research and view video clips about implementing an Exercise 4 Learning Lab. When I heard experts in the field explaining the concept of utilizing children’s love of electronic gaming with exercise and the benefits of such exercise on their learning potential, I was sold. However, I was still unsure of how this lab would function for the entire elementary student body. No other lab such as this was operating at the local level, and I so wanted to collaborate with others who had done this before. When Dr. John Ratey, Harvard Medical School professor and author of SPARK, came to visit our lab for its grand opening, and we were able to see his excitement towards the lab, I again was sold. I remember him saying to me, “Your students are very lucky, and you will definitely see benefits immediately with this lab.”
When we opened the lab, my expectations were to see excitement with the students, especially the older ones. I was a bit concerned about the younger students (K-1). When all grades were finally able to use the lab, I was blown away that kindergarteners as well as 5th graders were successfully using the equipment. They used it differently but both with the same enthusiasm. It has a “Wow” effect on our students.
After a year of supervising the Exercise 4 Learning lab, what benefits did you see as a result of students attending the lab?
Every student that came out with their class, usually between 20-25 students, was engaged and active the entire time in the lab. There was little need to convince students to stay engaged, as sometimes happens in PE or recess games. Students came to the lab for 15 minute and 30 minute slots. It did not matter in which time slot they were there, for more than half of them left with sweat dripping down their faces. Others were chatting to their friends about the game they had played and the scores they had received. All were energized.
I noticed that the kinds of activities in this lab increased overall coordination with all students. Some had a hard time moving their feet back and forth in rhythm, or using fine motor skills where hands and feet needed to work together. By the end of the first semester, most students had improved on all of these skills.
For the entire year, I never had to have a student sit out for behavior reasons. As a matter of fact, those who usually had to miss recess because of disciplinary problems, were always
engaged and had a positive attitude in the lab. They had fun and just wanted to be there. The way the lab functioned was to assign a station each time the student entered the lab, so the decision to choose a station was not a problem. These students were amazing to watch. They continually increased their time-on-task as they experienced increasing success. Because they played against a Wii person, Jackie Chan, or a Dance Arrow in the DDR, there was no competition with another student, they were able to focus on their bodies and attend to the task without disruption. Students on the autism disorder spectrum showed similar success. I do need to point out that the autistic students hold some of the highest records on many of the games.
Another set of students worth mentioning are the students that do not like PE or active recess games. These students love the lab. Some even asked if they could come on other recesses because they would rather exercise in the lab than do recess activities. I allowed this and asked them to bring 1-2 friends with them. I noticed that they then became more confident in recess games and became more social with friends and classmates because of their successes in the lab.
One final note: On the last week of school, the students were just as excited as they were when the year began. They run from their classroom to the lab and can not wait to play.
What were parents’ reactions to increasing the amount of fitness their children were getting at the school?
Parents were actually surprised about how little physical education students received prior to the addition of the lab. Many were unsure, as I was at first, but when they came to “play” or observed students activiely engaged, they thought that this was such a fantastic addition to the school.
I had one grandparent visit who had recovered from a brain injury caused by a mortar shell explosion while on active duty. Doctors thought he was going to die, or, at the least, never be able to use his arms or walk again. When he walked into the lab he was so impressed with the type of equipment we had for our students. Because of his own therapy, he knew that this lab was going to be a great addition to the lives of our students. I was so impressed by him, because of his age and acceptance of this new concept, and, of course, because of the sacrifice he had made.
There are many parents who see the importance of the lab, and they are especially supportive after they read the first half of Dr. Ratey’s book, SPARK. Whenever parents see me, they share how much their child loves the lab. Some have even bought Wii’s and dance pads for their home. Their kids are switching from sitting to active video gaming at home.
Dylan, Ryan, Brooks, Zach
What was your impression of the lab?
Ryan – I love it because it has my favorite thing in it which is Wii Sport. Also, it gives me more focus when I go back to class.
Dylan – I think it is awesome. The Wii is my favorite.
Brooks – My impression of the lab is amazing. I LOVE it. I wish I could go every day!
Zach – My impression of the lab is amazing. The Sports Wall is my favorite thing.
What did the other students think of the lab?
Ryan – They say they loved it, too. They thought it was fun and active.
Brooks – All of my friends love the Spark Lab (except for a couple).
Dylan – They think it is cool.
Zach – Other students thought the lab was awesome.
What do you know about how exercise improves learning?
Ryan – It helps your heart and your brain.
Zach – After you exercise, you are more focused. And when you are focused, it is easier to learn.
Dylan – You heart provides a chemical called BDNF, and it helps you think better.
Brooks – I know when you exercise, it helps the brain.
Parent reaction to the lab:
I love it. The more active my children are, the better. In fact, at preschool, the teachers knew that they needed to move before the kids sat down to learn. I know all the benefits of how exercise impacts academic performance. In fact the staff at our middle school is working toward building a lab, too.