In recent years Finland has outperformed every nation on international educational assessments. The Finnish school system is recognized for utilizing research and applying that knowledge to the daily operations of the school. Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and scholar, attributes their success to a variety of reasons. For example, there’s been a strong emphasis on teacher training, leadership, and collaboration that they believe is one of the significant factors to high student achievement. Another factor is the incorporation of physical activity throughout the school day. Finland credits many of their successful practices as being a result of consistently applying educational research that has been done here in the U.S. Ironically, we, on the other hand, often don’t pay much to what there search shows and continue to subscribe to increasing seat time and focusing only on academics.
During the past five years, there has been an increasing amount of evidence that physical activity improves learning. Two recent studies, one by Chuck Hillman at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the other by Michele Tine at Dartmouth College, support that association. Hillman found that children who were physically fit have faster and more robust neural-electrical brain response during reading than less physically fit peers. Tine’s study found that even 12 minutes of aerobic exercise improves cognitive functioning in children and adolescents, with the most significant gains for those of low income. She points out that an important lesson for educators is how physical activity is presented. If aerobic exercise is perceived as drudgery, people of all ages tend to avoid it. Therefore, whenever aerobic exercise is included in the school day, it should be framed as fun, playful, and rewarding.
An intervention that is becoming more popular and addresses the need to make physical activity fun is Exergaming. In a recent survey with middle school students, over 90% of the students reported that they were likely to engage and reengage in physical activity because of the motivational factor that Exergaming offers. Can you imagine racing a car with your buddy, as avatars, knowing that the speed of your car depends on how fast you actually pedal the bike you are riding? It can spur you into aerobic activity without you even noticing – with all the cognitive benefits along for the ride.
If we want students to have the higher-level cognition and achievement, we need to pay attention to the research and provide them with the physical activity opportunities that create the brain environment needed for learning. Active play recess, fitness-based PE, sports, brain breaks/energizers, Exergaming – these are all tools to facilitate physical activity. As Michelle Tine noted, exercise during the school day must be presented as “fun, playful, and rewarding”, and Exergaming fits that parameter well.