Fun, Exercise Boost Kids' Attention, School Performance; All It Takes Is 4 Minutes

Children Need Interval Breaks To Focus
Keeping kids awake and eager to learn in the classroom only requires four minutes of quick exercise. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Keeping children fully engaged in the classroom is no easy feat, but a new technique incorporating high-intensity interval training may be the answer to every teacher's prayers. Canadian researchers at Queen's University found that four is the magic number. Just four minutes to hold a child's attention span in the classroom. They published their findings in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.

Just four minutes of physical activity has been shown to greatly reduce fidgeting and inattentiveness for second and fourth grade students. They're calling the quick spurts FUNtervals. These brief breaks give the child an opportunity to release all of their pent up energy into highly-focused and applicable activities, such as collecting firewood, starting a fire, making s'mores, or simply exploding into exercise with squats and jumps.

"While 20 minutes of daily physical activity (DPA) is required in Ontario primary schools, there is a need for innovative and accessible ways for teachers to meet this requirement," said the study's lead researcher Brendon Gurd, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, in a press release."Given the time crunch associated with the current school curriculum we thought that very brief physical activity breaks might be an interesting way to approach DPA. We were particularly interested in what effects a brief exercise bout might have in the classroom setting."

For three weeks, researchers compared a classroom with incorporated FUNtervals to a classroom without breaks, and observed how many times a child became distracted or fidgeted during their lessons. In just 50 minutes the results were obvious. Children given a break with quick, enthusiastic movements directed toward a common goal were able to learn with better attention and effectiveness. The FUNtervals were easily conducted in small spaces without the need to budget for expensive exercise equipment, making it completely applicable for any classroom setting. There's no excuse for school systems not to try this research-based approach to help kids focus and learn more effectively. 

Exercise has become a highlighted topic for doctors, teachers, administrators, and parents who are concerned their children may fall into the unhealthy habits lurking everywhere in the United States. Children are more susceptible than any other population because they're at the mercy of someone else's decisions, priorities, knowledge, and wallet. Recess is a key tool in fighting this life-threatening epidemic. These overweight and obese children are more likely to grow up to be disease-ridden adults with expensive health bills that could cripple the country's financial status.

While many preschoolers still go out to play for 20-minute recess breaks if weather permits, schools around the country are increasingly eliminating recess from schedules. In 2001, the Clearinghouse on Early Education and Parenting found nearly 40 percent of the nation's school districts were cutting recess from school days. A school without a playground sends a very loud and ominous message: exercise is not prioritized. All of the current research shows these actions are a bad idea. In 2005, The Journal of School Health clearly stated that physical movement increased a student's ability to perform in the classroom, boosting attention and increasing blood flow to the brain. Are we waiting until children are too overweight and obese to pay attention in the classroom? Filling children to the brim with junk food and sugar will never work, but these FUNtervals may set school systems back on track to a healthier conscientiousness.

Source: Gurd BJ, Le Mare L, and Ma JK. Classroom-based high-intensity interval activity improves off-task behaviour in primary school students. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2014.

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