Students need exercise so they can perform well in school. A growing body of research on how the brain works supports this finding, and teachers have known it intuitively for much longer. With daily recess and PE classes, The Howard School has been committed to movement throughout its history. But through the Spark Program, students can get the brain benefits of exercise over the course of the whole day.
Teachers have noticed that kids do better after recess. Exercise makes them more available for learning —it calms them down while it helps them focus.
Spark was introduced after a team of Howard School teachers attendedLearning & the Brain, a national conference held several times a year that brings together neuroscientists and educators to explore how the brain works and its impact on classroom performance. John Ratey, Harvard Medical School professor and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, inspired PE instructor Mike Hamilton and several other teachers to launch a pilot Spark exercise program at Howard that would integrate movement throughout the day. With Spark as the centerpiece, The Howard School now provides several opportunities for students to move beyond the traditional hour for recess and PE.
Students arrive at school between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., gather in the gym and choose an activity, such as jumping rope, playing with balls or shooting hoops on the outdoor basketball court. Then there’s the first Spark of the day —a 20-minute movement block that literally gets kids in the frame of mind to learn. Students run and walk laps, stop at the jump rope station and pass balls back and forth to keep things interesting. Everyone goes to class next, but they don’t slow down. Learning centers and interactive whiteboards in the classroom get students up and moving. They can even act out their understanding of content and concepts. In one class, students become parts of a cell and move around to demonstrate cell activity.
Then it’s lunchtime, half of which is recess. After refueling with food and exercise, students settle down for afternoon classes. They are encouraged to use breaks responsibly and independently —get a drink of water, walk up and down the hall and return to class, stand up and stretch, use the wall to do a few pushups and then return to their seats, or lie down to read if it’s more comfortable. They work in hallways, at picnic tables or in the gazebo, or go to other rooms for small group work. Middle School students can bring a laptop to a cozy alcove and work on projects, and High School students can use hallway carrels. Halfway through the afternoon, it’s time for the second Spark block. Though 20 minutes isn’t a long time, students get moving right away and stay moving for the entire time. The result of all this activity? Students are doing better with Spark. We treat them as partners in their own successful learning and moving regimen, and we let them know this will help them. And they love it.
The SPARK Strategy
Indoor Spark strategies allow students to take part in their work physically, getting the movement out so they can concentrate and redirect their energy:
- Clapping, tapping syllables in the lines of a haiku or notes in a song, and writing words in the air with a finger
- Use of fidgets —small objects that keep hands busy while the mind is engaged
- Alternate seating like rocking chairs, beanbags and rubber balls
- Bungee cords on chair rungs so students can move their legs without distracting others