By Dan Lawler, Ph.D.
This school year a Title I teacher in Colorado will beintegrating into her teaching both effective practices in literacy instructionand current research on how exercise prepares the brain for learning. She is a strong literacy teacher, longgrounded in strategies that have been supported by research in readinginstruction. This year she is excitedto add this new dimension to her literacy lessons by having her classes participatein 5 to 7 minutes of exercise just prior to instruction.
Currently, the well recognized Reading Recovery Model guidesher daily instruction. This model hasstrong evidence that validates an increase in print awareness, wordrecognition, fluency, and reading comprehension. Reading Recovery has shown significantlypositive effects on reading achievement and has been included on the U.S.Department of Education’s list of “Gold Standard” findings.
Even though this teacher was implementing cutting-edgeresearch on literacy instruction, there was still evidence that her kids couldperform at a higher level. As novel andinteresting as she would strive to make the lessons, many of her students stillhad a difficult time staying engaged. Although the very best practices in reading instruction were beingdelivered by a highly qualified teacher, she was driven to look for answersbeyond her current practices.
Early last year, she was introduced to Dr. John Ratey’s workon the effects exercise has on the brain. What was well documented in his book, SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, wasthat exercise (particularly certain types) actually prepares the brain for learning. In addition to activating the attentionsystem, exercise also increases growth factors – especially BDNF, referred toas “Miracle Gro for the brain”, that increase memory and learning.
Moderate aerobicexercise that involves coordination, even for short periods of time, canactivate the attention system for 60-120 minutes. It produces neurotransmitters that increasefocus, decrease anxiety and stress, and decrease anger and aggression. One problem is to get unmotivated kids to do the exercise. This is where ExerGaming can be a powerfultool.
At the teacher’s school, a small ExerGaming lab was recentlyinstalled. The lab had 10 stations witha variety of ExerGaming equipment: WiiFit, Xbox Kinect, Dance DanceRevolution, gaming bikes, FitWall, and Xavixs. What makes this lab a powerful tool is that these pieces of equipmentare engaging, usually utilizing video games to get kids moving. The teacher has no problem getting thestudents to exercise before instruction, and they quickly settle into theirlessons with sustained focus.
During this school year, the teacher will be conducting acase study involving her students, which is expected to show similar positiveresults that prior research has demonstrated. Already, she is seeing evidence of more attentive and engagedstudents. The exercise has prepared thebrains of her students to learn so that they can better benefit from her expertinstruction.
It’s exciting to see an educator to pull together two bodiesof solid research and combines them in a way that makes learning more effectivefor students.