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Exercise During Math, Spelling Lessons Boosts Learning In Schoolchildren

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Exercising isn't just good for the body, it could boost brainpower as well. A new study in the Netherlands found that adding activities such as running and jumping jacks while kids learn mathematics and spelling could help them perform better academically.

Dutch researchers compared standardized math and spelling test scores from 499 students aged 8 years old on average. The kids were randomly given language and math lessons with physical activities for two years.

The physically-active group jumped in place for 10 to 15 minutes while they spelled words or recited the multiplication table. During the remainder of the 30-minute lesson, the kids performed basic movements.

In the end, the research team led by Marijke Mullender-Wijnsma found that the physically-active group were about four months ahead of their peers in math and spelling. Mullender-Wijnsma said it appears that students focused better with the physical activity. She said kids used both their motor activity and sensory activity to learn.

"Children want to move, and they learn a lot by moving their bodies," said Mullender-Wijnsma. "Children can also learn by sitting at a table, but they learn more by being active."

Researchers assume that injecting physical activities might cause new blood vessels to form, thus improving students' cognitive performance.

"We saw that it really worked, of course -- we were very enthusiastic about it and a little bit surprised," said Mullender-Wijnsma. "We didn't think we would find this big of an effect."

The findings are published Wednesday in the journal Pediatrics.

Benefits For Kids

While the exercise method worked well for math and spelling, researchers discovered it had no effect on reading scores. Thus, the activity only works best for subjects that involve a lot of repetition and memorization.

The latest study adds to the growing body of evidence that support physically-active lessons in schools. A previous large-scale study in the United States called Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (PAAC) also found that physical activities improved students' academic achievements on standardized tests. The activities also had positive effects on their body mass index (BMI).

A similar program had been introduced at the Royal Orchard Middle School in Ontario, Canada. The program, which is known as Actively in Motion (AIM), was conducted by sixth grade teachers Dave Perkin and Laura Badevinac.

Badevinac said most kids in the school are active learners. The students need to be hands on and need to move around so they could engage in their studies, although they aren't all athletes, she said.

Kids involved in the program begin their day with 40 to 80 minutes of exercise. Perkin said the kids exercise while collecting data for science and math. For example, a topic on flight includes applications on how the birdie flies through the air.

"We're using sport and movement to actually teach the curriculum in as natural way as can occur," said Perkin.

One of the AIM students, sixth-grader Rhea Hicks, said her grades have improved because of the program.

"Being able to do my academics with my physical abilities, it's like a dream come true," she said.

Unknown Factors

The Dutch research team will test the learning method in children with special education needs. They also plan to expand their study to students aged 9 to 12, but not all teachers are eager to embrace the novel approach.

"Some teachers were not fond of physical activity themselves," said Mullender-Wijnsma. "They find they are less motivated to teach these lessons."

Sara Benjamin Neelon of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore said weaving the new approach could offer amazing possibilities of helping kids learn while keeping them healthy.

However, she said there are still unknown factors. For instance, the study was conducted in the Netherlands, and it is not clear whether the results would be the same in America's diverse school system.

Even if it works, Benjamin Neelon said there are practical barriers that could hinder the approach in classrooms. These include training teachers, winning over parents, and finding proper space and time.

She also said that the effects in the Dutch study may not even be because of exercise at all.

"It might be the novelty. The children are learning in a new way," she said. "They're intrigued."

Lastly, Benjamin Neelon said they want to make sure that physical activities do not detract children from learning.

Photo: USAG - Humphreys | Flickr

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