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Exercising in the classroom? How experts believe it helps kids learn

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Exercising in the classroom? How experts believe it helps kids learn
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

All teachers have seen it -- that spacey look in their students' eyes that says, "nothing is sinking in here."

More and more educators are combating that look by literally stepping up efforts to get their students physically active.

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"There is a lot of research that shows the huge benefits exercise has on learning," said Roosevelt third grade teacher Rhonda Fode, who admits she likes to dance around the classroom.

"And my goal is to get my kids not to think they're too cool to do it, too," laughed Fode.

As fun as little dance breaks sound, (and yes, Fode says it is for her), it isn't as much about whooping it up as it is breaking it down.

"There are two different spheres to your brain that need to be woken up," said Fode, who attended training on the subject, along with a group of other DL educators. "So if you use both sides of your body and use physical movement to cross your midline section, it engages your whole brain, gets the oxygen and blood flowing and helps you focus."

This is why Fode will once a day get her students up out of their desks and tell them to "Go bananas" -- a dance routine she found on YouTube which she plays on the Smart Board for the entire class to see.

It's one of several physical activities she has them doing in what she calls "learning stations" or "energizers."

"Sometimes when I'm just sitting there for a long time, my legs start to hurt and I just want to get up and stretch, but can't, so this (dancing) really helps," said third grader Logan Smith-Bertek. "I think it helps me think better, too."

Fode isn't alone in her methods; just down the hall, kindergarten teacher Shan Manke is a true believer in the connection between the body and the mind, and she has her students participating in something called "Brain Gym."

"The focus is to learn how to focus," said Manke. "I can always tell when they're getting kind of antsy, I'll put the brain gym on two or three times a day...just to kind of bring them back and ground them again."

Brain Gym is now being practiced in classrooms around the world, as its website claims it helps to improve concentration, memory, academics, physical coordination, relationships, self-responsibility, organizational skills and attitude.

The movements aren't as fast paced as the dancing in Fode's class, but resemble something like yoga.

Whether bouts of two to five minutes of exercise can truly affect all those areas or not, school leaders seem to be convinced.

"You can hold somebody's attention for 10 minutes before their body will actually assist in tuning out," said Detroit Lakes Superintendent Doug Froke, "so teachers have got to do something different. Everybody is worried about trying to pack everything in for testing, but students also need to be able to absorb the content, and if exercise can help do it, that's what we need to do."

The district makes it a point to have all students engaging in physical activity the days of testing, as studies have shown the benefits of it reflected in test scores.

Fourth grade teacher Kirk Beebout says while he doesn't believe test numbers will shoot up from the daily bursts of activity, he has noticed a difference in his students after only a half a year doing what is called "Jammin' Minutes."

"If I see that they're not real interested in things, I'll get them up and moving around...or if it seems like they've got a lot of energy and they need to get rid of it...we'll do it," said Beebout. "It gives them an opportunity to refocus....to get their blood and oxygen going to their brain and helps them think a little bit better."

And while students reap the physiological benefits from additional exercise, it also helps keep them on an even keel throughout the day.

"When you're sitting there a long time, you just get tired," said Roosevelt fourth grader Grayson Haman, as his classmate, Jesse Olson adds, "Ya, but for me, sometimes when I've been sitting in chair for like an hour, I can start to feel my energy building way higher than it probably should be, so this is good."

Not all teachers have jumped on board with classroom exercises yet, but Froke says they have plans to stress the importance of it even more next year.

The district has already implemented morning recess for elementary students because of the mounting belief in the body-to-brain connection.

The school's wellness committee also convinced district leaders to spring for additional fruits and vegetables, which they began handing out twice a week to elementary students right before Christmas, on a trial basis.

"So now instead of taking in empty calories and garbage, they're getting apples, oranges, carrots, pears...and I haven't had anybody refuse them yet," said Manke, who believes these are all steps in the right direction of teaching kids lifestyle habits that she believes ultimately affects their brains as well.

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