The Government’s key project objective, ‘one hour of physical activity each day’, does not only refer to increasing the number of physical education lessons, but also to a more active school day. Teachers’ experiences and recent research show that, ideally, physical activity supports the wellbeing of the school community as a whole.
“I wouldn’t have believed that physical activity refreshes and brings so much new joy to school days,” says a special needs teacher who participated in a Finnish Schools on the Move programme survey, referring to the increased physical activity at their own school.
The current Government Programme urges schools to create opportunities for physical activity during the school day. Schools on the Move aim to approach things in new ways, such as sitting less, using activity-based methods in support of learning, doing physical activity during break times and commuting to and from school using muscle power. Both pupils and teachers benefit from increasing physical activity, which promotes a pleasant and peaceful school environment and supports learning.
“Teachers no longer feel that physical activity is a time-consuming and extra chore, but something that can be handily slipped in between lessons, for example.” (a class teacher)
Physically active pupils are more attentive
How does increasing physical activity relate to the school’s ultimate purpose of supporting pupils’ learning? According to the most recent research, physical activity during the school day boosts attention and executive functions, creating good conditions for learning.
In a recent Dutch study, two 30-minute physical activity sessions were added to the school week of primary school pupils. During the physical activity sessions, pupils engaged in vigorous activities under the teacher’s supervision, such as playing tag or various ball games. After six months, it was found that pupils participating in physical activity noticeably improved their results in tasks requiring executive functions when compared with those who did not participate in physical activity sessions. A study conducted in the United States, in turn, discovered that a ten-minute activity-based mathematics exercise enhanced pupils’ executive functions more than an exercise performed sitting down.
Physical activity during the school day is also perceived by teachers to be useful from the perspective of learning:
“The best thing about Schools on the Move is getting hyperactive pupils to exercise; as a result, learning situations are more peaceful,” a teacher describes, referring to her experiences.
Promotion of physical activity is also reflected in better learning outcomes. In a US study, the pupils’ school week was supplemented with 90 minutes of vigorous physical activity in ten-minute stretches as part of lessons in alignment with learning objectives. The study found that, over a period of three years, subject-specific test results in reading, mathematics and spelling improved significantly among children participating in exercise when compared with the control group. Similar results were obtained in a recent Dutch study, where children participated in physically active mathematics and native language lessons three times per week. After two years, pupils participating in physically active lessons achieved better results in spelling and mathematics tests when compared with those who did not participate in activity-based lessons.
Pupils find activity-based learning fun. In a Finnish Schools on the Move survey, pupils reported that even a subject that they find dull can become interesting if normal classroom routines are broken by means such as taking regular breaks from sitting or having a lesson outside the classroom.
Physical activity during the school day does not have to break sweat in order to promote learning. Some teachers have already developed physically active working methods for their own lessons.
“I have organised QR-marker orienteering inside the school building, for example. The pupils and the teacher get out of the classroom and move in the corridors looking for marker assignments and doing these on their mobile phones. This works with all subjects. We have also got some gym balls for our classrooms,” explains a language teacher inspired by the topic at a School on the Move.
Schools make pupils sit
Adding physical activity to the school day can be justified by today’s sedentary lifestyle, which is also visible in schoolchildren’s everyday lives. According to a Finnish Schools on the Move study, primary and secondary school pupils remain stationary for about six and a half hours and just over eight hours a day, respectively, almost half of which takes place at school. On average, for every hour spent at school, primary and secondary school pupils remain stationary for 39 and 46 minutes, respectively, counting break times, lunch breaks and all lessons (physical education included).
The average amount of vigorous physical activity during the school day, in turn, only stands at 22 minutes at primary level and 17 minutes at secondary level. Physical activity during the school day is particularly important for the least physically active young people. Five per cent of primary school pupils and one fifth of secondary school pupils do very little physical activity, less than half an hour a day. For less active pupils in compulsory education, physical activity accumulated during the school day accounts for almost half (42%) of the day’s total activity.
Taking breaks from sitting and increasing physical activity make it possible to prevent the health risks of excessive sitting, such as impaired physical fitness, glucose and fat metabolism disorders, and neck and back pain. A Finnish Schools on the Move study discovered that excessive stationary time increases weekly neck and shoulder pain among children who have less than an hour of physical activity a day.
Promoting physical activity at school may also give teachers an impetus to examine their own wellbeing. While teachers might not necessarily spend much time sitting during the day, they may still not get much physical activity either. It is advisable to rethink established practices from the following perspective, for example:
“We have held teaching staff meetings and performance reviews as walk-and-talk meetings,” a School on the Move principal explains as a tip.
Taking active breaks during lessons also provides teachers with an excellent opportunity to take pauses in their own work. Pause exercises invigorate the body and stimulate the brain’s blood circulation and oxygen intake, while also boosting cognitive functions. Taking regular breaks at work also has a positive effect on coping with the workload.
“Seeing pupils becoming motivated with the aid of physical activity has occasionally made me even feel stronger as a teacher; I feel that physically active teaching methods have given me a new tool for my professional toolbox.” (a special needs teacher)
Pleasant and peaceful learning environments
The Finnish Schools on the Move programme aims to make the school day more active and pleasant. Research suggests that the majority of Schools on the Move staff feel that physical activity during the school day increases pupil satisfaction at school and that break-time physical activity promotes a peaceful learning environment.
“There are fewer break-time conflicts now that pupils have something meaningful to do,” comments a teacher on their experiences.
Teachers have also described their experiences in broader terms:
“The Schools on the Move activities support education, calm the atmosphere in lessons and teach pupils to play and do things together and find the joy of physical activity.”
“More energy for yourself and your pupils. You have more energy for classwork, and the school day and your own working day feel shorter. The activities have also given me strength to cope with the workload,” a class teacher muses.
The Schools on the Move activities also result in pupil satisfaction at school. Primary and secondary school pupils who participated in break-time physical activity perceived peer relations to be better at school, while primary-level pupils doing physical activity during break times reported that they felt more togetherness at school and that the school atmosphere was better.
A secondary school pupil participating in the study explained their thoughts as follows:
“The best part is when you can take exercise sessions in the middle of lesson; it refreshes you and makes you feel good!”
Increasing physical activity in secondary school too
The transition from primary to secondary school is shown in research to be a stage when pupils’ physical activity levels take a nosedive. Therefore, increasing physical activity and taking active breaks during lessons are especially important in secondary school.
In teachers’ experience, it is challenging to get secondary school pupils to increase their physical activity during the school day. Nevertheless, change is still possible.
“I wouldn’t have believed that we’d be able to get secondary school pupils moving during break times.” (a subject teacher)
According to Schools on the Move research, effective practices at secondary school include structured break-time activities, providing equipment and facilities for physical activity, pupils acting as peer instructors, etc. These means have especially inspired boys to engage in physical activity during break times. In many cases, different solutions are required to motivate girls. A solution found to be effective is to offer girls-only facilities and activity sessions. These allow girls to concentrate on creating their own ways of doing physical activity during break times without any performance and appearance pressures.
Working together in small steps
Teachers find promotion of physical activity to be important, but its implementation is often buried under busy day-to-day routines. A subject teacher expressed their thoughts as follows:
“I hope that our community spirit will improve, but I’m afraid that everyone has too much work to do and this is why they won’t have the drive to change their working methods.”
Pupils can bear some of the responsibility and participate in planning and organising activities, saving time for teachers to focus on other work. Young people are usually more willing to get involved in activities if they have the chance to plan and organise activities in their own peer groups or with their friends, such that the opportunities to participate are not tied to traditional school structures, such as year groups. Young people’s memberships in various groups and hierarchies between groups strongly define what they can do and dare to do during break times. At a certain school, pupils have discussed in their own friend groups what they would like to do in the school gym during break times. Based on these plans, the pupils prepared applications and the school’s Schools on the Move team allocated gym time slots to different groups.
Each School on the Move is implementing a more physically active school day in its own way. One method identified as a good way to get teachers involved is to find out about everyone’s own interests and strengths and use these as a basis to start working out an overall approach. In addition, the school facilities, environment and culture create the foundation for development work. School days can be made more enjoyable by doing things together and involving pupils in planning, decision-making and implementation of activities. Change in the school culture gets started by working together in small steps.
The authors work as researchers at the LIKES Research Centre for Physical Activity and Health.
• Heidi Syväoja, physical activity and learning
• Katariina Kämppi, school staff perspective
• Katja Rajala, pupil perspective, pupil participation
• Henna Haapala, pupils’ physical activity and social factors at school
The article is based on texts published in the magazines of the Special Education Association of Finland (Erityiskasvatus No. 4/15) and the Association of Physical and Health Educators (LIITO No. 2/16).
The research conducted as part of the Finnish Schools on the Move programme aims to study changes in physical activity and functional capacity among pupils aged 10–15 and the effects of the changes on pupils’ wellbeing and the school community.
In psychology, ‘executive functions’ is a term that describes the coordination and control of information processing. Executive functions control other cognitive functions essential to human activities, such as memory, attention and thinking.
‘Brisk or vigorous exercise’ refers to physical activity of moderate intensity, such as a brisk walk that increases the heart and respiratory rates at least to some extent.