Let Kids Move: The Importance of Physical Activity in School

Jan 18, 2024

I live in Michigan, and we've had a whole string of snow days lately. Over 2 feet has piled up already! For my kids, it's been like an endless recess – sledding, building snow forts, having snowball fights, and getting together with the neighbor kids to play for hours and hours outside. 

It has felt like the good old days, before video games and tablets. Kick the kids out of the house and tell them to be home by dinner.

Okay maybe not that old school, there’s been some screen time and I've been out there playing with them as well, But the bulk of these snow days has been spent outside playing. It's been cold, but for an eight and a nine-year-old, there's nothing quite like a snow day.

Kids Clearly Have Energy to Expend


And watching my kids constantly on their feet all day, trudging through snow and building with their hands reminds me how much children need to play; they need to move. I see this seemingly endless energy they have out there in the snow, and I think about how much of their school days are spent sitting inside. While my kids have amazing teachers who get them up and moving, the typical structure of a school day doesn't require this type of physical activity or expenditure of energy – energy they clearly have to expend. 

So much of the school day for the average child, elementary through high school, is spent sitting. Did you know 40% of elementary schools nationwide have cut back recess programs or eliminated recess altogether? And even in schools that still have recess, I'm not so sure two 15-minute recesses are enough. I wonder if behavioral problems in the classroom are largely a result of making children with this much energy sit at a desk for hours on end.

We Need to Let Kids Move

We need to let kids move. I'm not oblivious to the fact that it's easier to manage students when they are contained behind a desk. There are fewer variables when students are not outside but instead in a single room for the entire school day. However, the reality is that kids need to move; they have energy that must be expended, or it will often have a detrimental impact on their learning.

This is why I'm a fan of outdoor learning – class gardens, outdoor classrooms, and experiential learning experiences. For instance, when teaching erosion this year, my son's fourth-grade teacher took his students outside to find evidence of erosion all around the school grounds. My son learned the science content but also got to go outside and exercise. He did what nine-year-olds are supposed to do: move. As an added bonus, the learning that happened was probably even more effective than if the lesson on erosion was contained to the classroom.

The National Library of Medicine discovered a link between brain development and knowledge retention to movement and kinesthetic learning. Hands-on learning can lead to deeper understanding. Researchers  have also found that "at-risk students responded well to playful lessons and demonstrated significantly increased achievement scores, higher levels of engagement, and increased motivation.

How We Can Increase Movement in School

Embrace Recess

A recent Gallup poll reported  that 77% of school principals admitted to withholding recess as a punishment. In that same report, 8 in 10 principals mentioned that time for play has a "positive impact on achievement," and two-thirds of principals shared that "students listen better after recess and are more focused in class."

While students certainly need to learn that there are consequences for their behavior, taking away recess might not be the best method for teaching that lesson. It is too essential for students to get out and move. Therefore, perhaps consider alternative methods to discipline students and embrace recess. If you are an administrator or school board member, is there any way to increase recess time at your school or district?

Add Movement to Class Activities

Incorporate a hands-on, physical element to activities whenever you get an opportunity to. Here are a few easy options:

Promote Physical Education Class

Whether your district hires more PE teachers or not might be out of your hands, but I'll say this anyway: schools should not cut PE programs. Physical movement, from kindergarteners all the way to seniors in high school, is essential. It's crucial for deeper learning, physical development, and the establishment of healthy life habits. In my humble opinion, gym class should always have a place in the education system.

Let Kids Move

So let’s sum it up: Children have a lot of energy →  they need to burn that energy →  when they burn that energy they learn and grow more →  school should be a place they do that.

And if you are a parent, there's an added bonus that when kids burn a lot of energy during the day, like my kids have on these snow days, they tend to sleep a lot better at night. 

Want to dive deeper into this topic? Listen to the podcast episode on The Epic Classroom Podcast.

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