A growing body of research suggests that vigorous physical activity has a positive effect on children’s ability to concentrate and learn.
The premise is being put to use in some Brattleboro schools. A program called Jump Start for Learning uses bouncing, skipping, hopping, and other behaviors that were previously considered unacceptable in the classroom, to enhance academic work.
At Oak Grove School in Brattleboro, half a dozen first-graders bounce around Laura Haskins’ classroom on big red exercise balls. The kids call them hippity hops. As they hop, they count, by fives, threes, then fours.
Across the room, another group takes turns hopping on one foot up and down the numbered squares on a green hopscotch mat.
John Bentley, Jump Start’s leader and founder, shouts encouragement as the kids move from one activity to the next.
Along with all the giggles and excitement, Bentley says, the children are waking up their math brains.
First-grader Matthew Toney-Bentley (no relation to the Jump Start leader) says it makes sense.
"See, we do it before math," he says. "It just gets our brain going and we love it! We get to do hippity hops and math. We get to do hopscotch and more math. It’s just so fun!"
John Bentley is a retired physical education teacher. He’s helped launch Jump Start programs in a dozen classrooms in five southern Vermont schools. In some, students practice spelling words, or chant multiplication tables to the rhythm of rope jumping or karate kicks. Bentley says it helps the facts sink in.
Bentley says this class uses physical activity as a warm-up for regular math and reading lessons.
"The kids come and do jump start for twenty minutes," Bentley explains. "It gets fresh oxygen to their brain, and it energizes neuro-electrical connections so that their brain is physically awake and ready to function at a higher level."
Bentley says a school psychologist first told him about the evidence linking physical activity to improved ability to learn. He also read the work of Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, a leading authority on exercise and the brain.
Ratey says exercise stimulates the development of new cells in the part of the brain associated with memory.
The findings confirmed Bentley’s own experience. He says going for a run has always helped him sort out problems or come up with ideas.
"And then I read this stuff ," he says. "And I said, ‘Let’s combine movement directly with learning and see what happens.’"
After twenty minutes of physical activity, Laura Haskins, the teacher, rings a bell. "Okay," she says. "We’re going to get ourselves together and head back to the math circle."
"I was skeptical at first if they were going to be a little hyped up," Haskins says. "But they’re not. I mean, look at them! They’re sitting down and ready to go in a matter of one minute. And the focus continues through math class. So I wish we could do it more through the day."
Some educators and scientists are recommending shorter classes interspersed with bouts of physical activity. Haskins says her first graders would be happy to jump start that idea.