Getting physical

Education professor researches impact of classroom activity on students' learning

Fifth-grade students at Burton-Pack Elementary School in Columbia take a science quiz while spinning bike peddles under their desks. Down the hall, first-graders practice math skills while walking along a balance beam. These activities are part of the school’s three unique, grant funded “action-based learning labs” which integrate movement into typical academic instruction time through a variety of equipment.

Alongside these children, physical education students from the University of South Carolina’s College of Education hold clipboards and take notes. They are observing the school to see if adding movement that was once reserved for PE class into the regular academic day improves not only a student’s health but also his or her academic performance.

“Of course, we know that an hour of PE a week isn’t enough physical activity for children,” says physical education professor Collin Webster. “Schools have been trying to implement more movement outside the gym for several years. But, now our researchers and students are trying to figure out how to make these new action-based learning programs more purposeful.”

Webster says a successful physical education program would not only increase children’s activity today but also teach them the skills they need to be active and healthy for a lifetime.

“Pedaling at desks may be a good way to increase daily physical activity and even promote better school performance, but physical activities that are specifically aligned with physical education curriculum may maximize the impact of a comprehensive school physical activity program,” he says.

Webster’s research focuses on developing a Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program, or CSPAP, which is geared toward physical literacy not just physical activity.

“In the classroom, at recess, in afterschool programs, and beyond, physical activity must be meaningful for it to translate into a person’s lifelong health. For example, if a child knows the rules of a sport, feels confident that he or she has the physical skills to play the sport, and understands how the sport can keep them healthy, they are more likely to keep playing that sport into their adulthood,” Webster says.

Webster and the physical education students are carefully observing the students at Burton-Pack to see how often they are using the new equipment, versus just sitting at the desk but not peddling, to determine ways for the teachers to better engage the students in the movement.

“We believe that physical activity, when used in a meaningful way in the classroom, will increase a child’s cognitive function which could lead to great outcomes such as helping them stay on task, decreasing discipline issues and ultimately increasing student academic achievement.”

If Webster’s research proves that students’ grades and test scores go up as they become more active in a comprehensive school physical activity program, he says, he and other physical education professionals can push for policy changes that would incorporate more physical literacy programs in school across the county. 

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