What Did You DO Today?

Shira Loewenstein, Shira Heller, Melanie Eisen

It is an all too familiar situation: a third grader comes home from school today and the parent asks him, “What did you do today?” He doesn’t look up from his book as he responds, “Nothing…”.


This scene (or something similar) is happening in millions of homes across the country on a daily basis. The question might vary, but the response is usually the same: “Nothing.” While this is surely untrue, it led us to think about what children spend their school day doing. What action words describe a child’s school day? In addition to thinking, learning, speaking, reading, calculating…were the children moving? 


We decided to try a small-scale experiment to see if we could answer this question. We sent five different children to three different Jewish day schools wearing activity trackers to help answer: what had they done all day? We measured steps taken, periods of activity and periods of inactivity. We could trace the exact classes the students had and see the different teaching philosophies depicted in movement. What was most striking to us was the difference in activity by classroom and by day.


Students in the same grade had vastly different amounts of movement dependent on their setting. Some were sitting idle for 37 minutes at a time when others were idle for no longer than 20 minutes. It was no surprise that PE and recess were the most active parts of the children’s day, but lunch was shockingly one of the most idle periods for everyone (think about the rules in your lunchroom). Children who wore the tracker on multiple days had days where they were significantly more active than others (7,975 steps on one day and 4,794 the next).


The child who moved most throughout the day (14,800 steps) was a high schooler. He reported that although he doesn’t move very often during class, he plays “bell to bell” basketball during PE and lunch and takes the stairs multiple times throughout the day to get to his various classes.


As we thought about these children and how much movement they did or did not have during the day, we wondered how that would impact them. Anecdotally, the children who moved more reported feeling better. But how might all of that movement affect their learning? How might the movement breaks take away from their learning, or perhaps enhance it?


In Eric Jensen’s book Teaching With the Brain in Mind, he talks about the benefits of movement in the classroom. “In the same way that exercise shapes up the muscles, heart, lungs, and bones, it also strengthens the basal ganglia, cerebellum, and corpus callosum—all key areas of the brain. … Research found that exercise improves classroom behavior and academic performance and that even when an experimental group got four times more exercise per week than a control group of their peers (375 minutes versus 90 minutes), their ‘loss’ in studying time did not translate into lower academic scores.” His research further revealed that social skills improved in the groups who exercised more. Other research has found that students who are engaged in daily physical education programs consistently show not just superior motor fitness, but better academic performance and a better attitude toward school than their students who do not participate in daily PE.


So how does this translate into our classrooms? In Jewish day schools, we face a real challenge incorporating physical activity into students’ days because of our dual curriculum. In the study above, the “low exercise” group got 90 minutes of activity. In our schools, even that can sound like an unattainable goal. As Rabbi Tarfon said, the day is short and the work is great. In many schools, physical education periods have been limited or eliminated, and recess times are getting shorter and shorter to accommodate the growing list of academic demands. With so many subjects to learn, we wonder: how can we fit it all in?


As a first step, we can reconnect to all of our Jewish values. As much as Jewish families and Jewish schools value learning and academics, we need to remember that physical wellbeing is also an essential Jewish idea. God gave us each a mind and a soul, which schools and parents are responsible to cultivate. God also gave each of us a body, which we are also responsible to safeguard (Deuteronomy 4:15: “Take good care of your lives”). Today more than ever we know that exercise is a key component to staying healthy. The Rambam teaches that “maintaining a healthy body is among the ways of serving God, since it is impossible for one who is not healthy to understand or know anything of the Creator. Therefore one must distance oneself from things which harm the body, and accustom oneself to the things which strengthen and make one healthy” (Hilkhot Deot 4:1).


We should think of the opportunities we take with our students to stretch, do jumping jacks, change seats or dance as essential learning activities—not as distractions or breaks from learning. By paying attention to students’ need for movement, we are fulfilling the mitzvah of caring for our bodies. We can also be reassured that our care results in increased ability to concentrate and learn. 


We have heard of all sorts of radical interventions to increase movement in the classroom—trading all the chairs for yoga balls, getting rid of chairs altogether, having standing desks, treadmill desks and more. Often times, we do not have to take these drastic measures in order to make a dramatic change; with some small steps, every child could add a few more active verbs into his or her day. 


The first move that we can make in our classrooms is during transitions. These are natural times for student movement, and as teachers we can think about how to maximize the gross motor stimulation we give our children. 


  • Have you ever thought that you wish your classroom furniture was in a different format for your lesson? Teach the students to move the furniture to accommodate the different types of lessons you might be teaching. 
  • Having the students move their desks and chairs into a different configuration will allow the space to meet your learning goals and will allow your students to exert some energy during the moving process.
  • When your students transition to a different space either inside the classroom our outside have them move in an unconventional way. The bear walk, crab walk, frog hop are just a few transitional moves that your students can be taught to implement on their way to another location.
  • Teach students to stand when they have a question or comment rather than raising a hand—or to stand while speaking.
  • Put classroom supplies in a far corner of the room, and allow students opportunities to get up and walk to get a pencil, marker or book. 
  • Set a timer for yourself when your students are engaged in a seated activity. After about 10 minutes of inactivity, take a brain break, and stand behind chairs on tiptoe (3 sets of 10 seconds), cross the midline with their elbows to their knees (3 sets of 10), hold a plank on the floor (30 seconds), or move to the nearest wall for a wallsit (30 seconds).


These are all simple moves that can add to the verbs of your day. We do not need to revolutionize the classroom or invest in new gadgets or furniture. Our students and our ingenuity are all we need to add some more action into our school days.

We would like to propose a checklist for educators to think about how we can add some more movement into our classrooms. Take this checklist with you to see how many of these verbs you use on a regular basis with your students. Can you increase their number over the course of a week? A month? The year? What verbs did you use in your classroom today?










































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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015