Busy schedules and a focus on academic achievement are often blamed for the decline in physical activity in primary schools. Yet there is evidence to suggest that physical activity brings substantial cognitive benefits, particularly when exercising in the morning. Plus, with more than a quarter of children leaving primary school obese, there is clearly an opportunity for effective physical activity sessions and PE lessons to take a more prominent position within the first half of the daily timetable.
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The benefits of children exercising are widely documented. Physical activity has a positive effect on mood, self-esteem and wellbeing, alleviates anxiety and depression, and improves aspirations, personal PE development and leadership skills. It also helps students to focus and avoid getting overly distracted.
Young people who participate in sport demonstrate lower rates of anti-social behaviour, an improved average attention span, and better classroom attendance. Plus, physical activity is a natural stress reliever, creating calmer, happier students.
There is mounting evidence to show that exercising in the morning has a greater benefit on student’s attention span and academic performance than physical activity in the afternoon.
With blood flowing around the body, more oxygen is carried to the brain, which improves focus. Plus, the release of endorphins gives a surge of energy at the start of the day. This can also help children with learning difficulties to focus and ignore classroom distractions caused by other students.
Exercise boosts the production of cells in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Exercise also improves neurogenesis, the process through which new neurons are formed in the brain, plus it supports decision making and learning.
Endorphins, produced during exercise, reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, making students feel happier and have improved self perception. Achieving goals early in the day can also help to give children a feeling of accomplishment, boosting self-esteem and confidence for the rest of the day.
Exercise improves blood flow and provides oxygen and nutrients to muscle tissue. This results in increased energy levels in the body, making children feel more ready to engage and participate in the day ahead. It will also increase clarity and attention span, improving the learning outcomes for the day.
A boosted metabolism helps to regulate the appetite-stimulating hormone and ghrelin, making students less likely to snack or crave unhealthy, sugary foods. The effects of the increased metabolism can last for 12 hours, helping students throughout the entire day.
These benefits demonstrate the power of physical activity, but in order to achieve maximum concentration, what else do we need to consider?
In order to have good concentration levels we need to have sustained attention, which enables us to focus, and sound executive function, which gives us the ability to think and make decisions.
Improved focus in students has many benefits. It leads to academic achievement, better decision-making, and prolonged attention span. Concentration can be boosted by a number of factors, such as keeping well hydrated, eating a healthy, balanced diet, eliminating distractions, and getting a restful night’s sleep.
Physical activity improves concentration skills; whether it’s playing team sports, learning new skills, or simply a game of tag.
Students are more alert after exercise, which is what improves concentration. Sports that require decision-making help to activate the mind, which primes the brain for paying attention for longer. Studies show that primary and middle-school-age children gain the most benefit in terms of enhanced cognitive function.
Just ten minutes of organised physical activity incorporated into the school day improves behaviour. If physical education sessions are in the morning, they set the child up for a better day.
There is evidence to show that students who do more physical activity are likely to have stronger self-control, which can help their education. They have better control of their emotions, meaning fewer mood swings or emotional outbursts. On top of this, learning proceeds more rapidly.
Young people with higher fitness levels exhibit better concentration.
There are several strategies that can increase physical activity in students, boosting concentration levels and improving the learning process.
If not already held in the earlier parts of the school day, PE lessons should be moved to the morning so that pupils can enjoy the benefits that come with physical activity before lunchtime.
Most students have one weekly PE lesson. Is there room in the timetable for a second physical activity session? Or, if not already incorporated, can a forest classroom session be held weekly, giving an opportunity for children to break from the typical classroom, connect with nature and be active whilst getting fresh air?
The more stimulating the surroundings, the more likely the children are to engage. Ensure that play areas, playgrounds and sports fields feature a range of challenging equipment.
No matter how skilled teachers are, they cannot always be equipped to teach any and every subject. And, especially at primary schools, having a dedicated in-house PE specialist isn’t always viable.
However, this doesn’t have to mean that primary schools go without physically challenging, varied, and engaging lessons. Organisations such as Premier Education can provide a fully qualified resident coach to deliver PE lessons and physical activity sessions including before- and after-school clubs.
Offering a varied mix of physical activities will bring about better engagement and enthusiasm, as well as greater opportunities for participation. Different activities such as team sports, gymnastics, ball games, and even free play allow for growth in a variety of areas such as cognitive, confidence, leadership, and teamwork benefits.
Recruit everyone from staff, students, parents, governors, and external suppliers to embrace the opportunity to communicate the benefits of physical activity, especially in the morning. Support teachers to find fun and interactive ways to incorporate fitness into the curriculum, review the play equipment offered by your school and use assemblies and newsletters to communicate the importance of living a healthy, active life.
If schools are proactive in setting the pace, it will motivate the children to live a more active lifestyle and inspire better learning.
Breaktimes naturally present an opportunity for children to play. But is there enough on offer to encourage them to be physically active?
If children are able to play imaginatively and freely, they are more likely to develop their own games and keep more active. This is especially important as just 10 minutes of playful coordination can improve concentration and attention span.
The appetite for exercise shouldn’t end with the school day. Parents should be encouraged to organise physical activities for children during the mornings, over weekends and holidays. Alternatively, schools can offer exciting after-school clubs which keep children dancing, running, competing, and developing skills such as hand-eye coordination and teamwork after hours.
Statistics show that levels of physical activity plummeted due to lockdown. Increased screen-time, no PE lessons, closures of playgrounds and no walking to school all contributed to the inactivity. Therefore, there’s more reason for schools to take a proactive role in incorporating PE regularly into the school day, and for talking regularly and openly in all communications about the positive benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle.
Find out more about how Premier Education can help improve classroom concentration through breakfast and after-school clubs.