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Get kids up and moving — walking, biking, dancing! — for better learning at home

By Dr. Samuel Browd and Dr. Susan Enfield, as originally posted by The Seattle Times


Studies show that even in small doses, physical activity helps drive learning and focus. (AP Photo / Elaine Thompson, File)

Students across Washington will continue learning at home until the fall, and possibly beyond. Despite the sprint by teachers and school administrators to find innovative ways to support learning in a new environment, distance learning is challenging.

Children are far less equipped to learn this way. Their brains aren’t built for it. Many of the key factors in brain development that support focus, attention to detail and learning are forged in the classroom and on the playground.

While online classrooms, take-home assignments, educational videos, apps and parental guidance support core learning needs, distance learning reminds us of the intangible benefits of a school environment. Children thrive on contact with their peers and caring adults in the school community. Schools are, quite literally, built for focus, connection and interaction. And structured play and physical activity are vital for learning.

We can’t change many of the things that make learning at home difficult, but we can put one proven idea to work — schedule time for children to move every day.

Here’s why: Physical activity builds brain function. Studies show that movement can make children more attentive. It relieves stress that interferes with the brain’s ability to learn. If your child is struggling to focus, start with movement.

Overall, physically active children have an advantage across academic outcomes. They retain more information, and they are better able to use that information to make decisions and manage their impulses. Even in small doses, movement helps drive learning and focus. Research shows that moderate to vigorous physical activity sessions lasting just 11 to 20 minutes can have almost immediate positive impacts.

Simply put, after exercise, a brain works more efficiently and with more power.

And, while access to successful distance learning tools and strategies is not equitable, the benefits of movement for children are. Children ages 5 to 13 experience the same benefits from physical activity regardless of their social or economic situation, race or ethnicity.

The Sports Institute champions the idea that physically active kids are better off in almost every measurable way. Because of that, we launched The Daily Mile USA to help teachers introduce more opportunities for their students to move during the academic day.

The program, created in the United Kingdom, encourages students to run or jog for just 15 minutes every day, and it’s one way we can better adapt our homes for learning. The Daily Mile is fun, free and easy to do at home or in your neighborhood. It’s also an excellent way for families to move together — because the benefits of physical activity aren’t just for kids.

But all movement counts! Find the physical activity that’s right for your child and your family. Whether it’s a dance party, a bike adventure, jumping jacks or a walk, use movement — within social-distancing guidelines — as the foundation for better learning at home. And let’s not forget that active children are more likely to be active adults. Not only will exercise improve school performance, it is a fundamental key to health and wellness for all ages.

We’re all searching for ways to support our children and encourage learning during this time. If we start with movement, the benefits may help our children learn more, help us all better manage long days at home and lay the foundation for them to become lifelong exercisers. Their minds and their bodies will be better because of it.

Dr. Samuel Browd is the director of The Sports Institute at UW Medicine and a professor of Neurological Surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is the medical director of the Seattle Children’s Sport Concussion Program and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.

Dr. Susan Enfield is superintendent of Highline Public Schools, which serves more than 18,000 students in Burien, Des Moines, Normandy Park, SeaTac and White Center.