Through his research at Legacy Charter School in Greenville, Furman health sciences professor Julian Reed has shown that physically active and physically fit children have greater academic performance, academic achievement and enhanced cognition compared to their less active peers. In support of that research, Greenville County Schools is implementing a new program called Walkabouts by ActivEd in its pre-kindergarten through second grade classrooms. Walkabouts are online adventures that integrate physical activity with math, language arts and reading content. We asked Reed to talk about his research and why he believes it’s so important to the educational process.
Q: You just completed your seventh year of studies at Legacy Charter School, where you have worked to incorporate daily physical activity into the learning environment. Tell us more about what you’re doing at the school and what your research has shown.
Reed: Legacy Charter School is a Title I school, and 99% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. It is also the only public school in South Carolina to provide 45 minutes of daily physical education to all children in grades kindergarten through high school. William Brown, Legacy’s board chairman, recognizes that healthy kids do learn better, and he implemented this policy to provide all children with daily physical activity through quality physical education.
During these past seven years, we have followed the students at Legacy and at our control schools—which have similar demography as Legacy—to measure the impact of daily physical education on health, fitness and cognition. We have discovered that Legacy children significantly outperform the control school students who do not receive daily physical education in a number of areas, including muscular strength, muscular endurance and aerobic capacity. These same Legacy students have also significantly outperformed control school students on cognitive measures like fluid intelligence and processing speed.
Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, Mayo Clinic and many other research organizations demonstrate that the most active, fit and healthy kids perform better academically. Unfortunately, many school districts are still reluctant to accept the idea that daily participation in physical activity can impact cognitive abilities, which leads to increases in academic performance and achievement while improving overall health.
Q: Why is movement so vital to the learning process?
Reed: Recent research has shown that routine physical activity can lead to changes in specific brain structures that are responsible for mental functions like reasoning, problem solving, abstract thinking, working memory and behavior. Additional research has demonstrated that the most active children not only improve on various cognitive tasks tied to academic performance and achievement, but they tend to have an increase in focus and display less inattention during the school day.
During the past five years alone, researchers, including myself, have been involved in studies that show the most active students perform better in math and language arts when compared to their less active peers. Moreover, recent findings from classroom-based activity programs like Walkabouts that focus on kinesthetic learning styles have demonstrated improvements in academic outcomes, on-task behavior and academic achievement. In fact, researchers at Iowa State University and the University of California at Irvine’s Department of Pediatrics tested our Walkabouts program and found that children who used Walkabouts had significant increases in attention and decreases in hyperactivity. Walkabouts also led to increases in classroom engagement, a predictor of math and language arts performance, compared to controls over an eight-week period.
Q: Tell us more about the Walkabouts program and how it works?
Reed: Imagine being taught how to ride a bicycle. Instead of learning on an actual bike, however, you are taught with descriptions and diagrams, all the while sitting quietly at a desk. For some students, the descriptions are sufficient; for others, the pictures make sense. But for many, the idea of gripping handlebars and balancing on a seat while imagining you’re spinning your feet will not really click until they get on a bike.
Few people would advocate teaching aspiring cyclists this way, and fewer still would advocate teaching this way if the goal was to inspire young people to fall in love with the joys of riding a bike. And yet, the more advanced we’ve become culturally and technologically, the more we’ve removed active, contextualized learning from elementary schools. Modern education is, sadly, more sedentary than ever. Kids are moving less, and students with learning differences and challenges are struggling more and more.
Walkabouts is an online tool that allows teachers to create short, standards-aligned lessons that transform math and language content into short, movement-rich activities. The students are out of their seats and moving while they are learning. And a teacher can quickly assess a student’s level of understanding by the movement each student is asked to perform during a Walkabout lesson.
Q: Why aren’t more schools making physical activity an integral part of the students’ day?
Reed: It’s largely because of the perception that there is a shortage of time in a school day and there is not enough money to support additional physical education time. Administrators argue they are evaluated not on the health of their children, but on how they perform on academic achievement tests administered at the end of the school year.
Therefore, all instructional time must be dedicated to content areas that are assessed. Areas like music, art and physical education that do not affect a school’s report card are not considered “core” to the curricula. It is not surprising, therefore, that less than four percent of elementary schools in the U.S. provide daily physical education.
Policy makers at the highest levels of the federal, state and local governments, including school boards, need to recognize that up to 70% of children and adults have more than one preferred learning style and the most frequently overlooked learning style is the kinesthetic learner. Kids are sitting for longer periods of time during the day, when moving would actually help them focus and improve their academic performance. Research has shown that kinesthetic learners have the capacity to use their whole bodies to express themselves, and they need to move in order to appropriately interpret their sensory stimuli.
At Furman, all elementary education majors are required to take my class, “Health Education and Physical Activity,” which shows them how to teach standards-based instruction in math and ELA/literacy with movement.
Q: Your interest in this subject isn’t purely academic, is it?
Reed: No, not entirely. Several years ago, Matt Ferebee, a former educator who now leads an award-winning design firm and is the father of a little boy struggling with dyslexia, and I struck up a conversation about the state of education and the challenges a growing number of students were having connecting with fundamental materials. We asked ourselves how teachers can reach all students, using all sorts of learning styles. We knew there must be a better way—a way that didn’t add burdens or stress to teachers’ already heavy load. So we set out to reconnect learners and classrooms to more active education. Our platform was inspired by years of research, but our commitment and passion were fueled by something even more powerful: the chance to help kids just like our own so they could learn more effectively and actively.