Short exercise breaks in Bethel schools help students stay alert

eva.revear@thenewstribune.comDecember 13, 2013 

Spanaway Elementary health and fitness specialist Matt McMaster, center, leads Justice Lamp, left, and Marc Taitague in Brain Breaks physical activities Wednesday at Spanaway Elementary School. The activities, which last from 30 seconds to two minutes, are recommended to get the blood flowing to the brain of students after they have been sitting for a while.


As an early-morning lesson came to an end, George Gillespie told his class to stand and mirror his movements. The fourth-graders followed along as Gillespie touched his toes, did jumping jacks and snapped his fingers. At random intervals he called up students who shyly but excitedly led the activity themselves.

The students at Spanaway Elementary School were taking a Brain Break, a kinetic diversion that helps pep up the school day by giving kids a chance to be active in an often sedentary classroom setting.

“It has improved my instruction, because it helps keep the day moving,” Gillespie said.

Brain Breaks are designed around the idea that movement should be integrated into classrooms because it’s a crucial aspect of learning. The one-to-two minute activities are designed to get the blood flowing and engage both sides of the brain.

The Bethel School District started using Brain Breaks in the last year when research on the subject caught the attention of the district’s Healthy Schools Team during an overhaul of the physical education curriculum. What they learned were techniques for bringing short bursts of PE into the classroom.

When people sit for 20 minutes, nearly a third of their blood pools in the lower extremities, reducing the essential focus required for learning, according to information the team collected. Some of what they learned came from a researcher at the University of Washington.

“The body is not built to sit around and let all the blood pool in our buttocks,” said John Medina, an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the UW School of Medicine whose research focuses on human brain development.

Medina said that when children get their blood circulating, it increases oxygen to the part of the brain that controls memory and information retention.

In 2012, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department awarded Bethel a two-year, $20,000 grant to implement Brain Breaks in its classrooms.

The Health Department also gave money to several other schools in Pierce County to pursue Brain Breaks. The Eatonville School District plans to use them this school year as well.

In the last year, a group of PE teachers from around the Bethel district created an easy-to-use packet of 90 activities. The booklet is divided into five color-coded sections: brain prep, content review, chair yoga, brain breaks and class cohesion.

The idea is for every teacher in the district to hang the booklet from a key ring, right next to the classroom emergency preparedness packet.

“We wanted to create something that teachers could just grab when they see their kids getting tired, pick one, and go,” said Missy Widmann, who teaches PE and anatomy at Spanaway Lake High School.

Gillespie said that since he received the packet last spring, he uses the activities daily.

He said he chooses Brain Breaks based on the class mood. If he sees his fourth-graders getting tired, he uses an active exercise; he uses quieter ones when he wants to refocus their attention.

One of Gillespie’s favorites is “Line Up,” where kids form a sequence around the room in order of their birthdays without speaking. He said this not only teaches them to focus, but also to communicate and work together in nontraditional ways.

Another favorite, and more active, Brain Break is “Finger Grab.” Students stand in a circle and place their left pointer finger in the right palm of the person next to them. When the teacher yells “Go,” the students try to grab their neighbor’s finger, while pulling their own finger away from the palm of the other person.

Widmann said Finger Grab is also a favorite with her high school students.

She uses Brain Breaks regularly, and her students now ask for them when they feel lethargic. She said she sees an increase in their attentiveness afterward.

The biggest challenge the Healthy Schools Team faces is convincing colleagues the value of taking a few minutes out of school days crammed with full lesson plans and standardized test preparations.

“It’s a tough sell I think because my colleagues in different disciplines are feeling like it’s one more thing to do,” said Minta Wulf, a health and fitness instructor at Cedarcrest Middle School “We have to be able to show how it actually helps.”

Another challenge is that Brain Breaks are meant to supplement regular aerobic activity, which has been cut the past few years through reductions in PE classes and staff.

Matt McMaster, a health and fitness specialist in the district, said PE teachers see their kids one to two times a week for 30 minutes. Elementary school recess times vary across schools, but they’re no longer than half an hour. Schools are hard-pressed to accommodate the hour a day of aerobic activity recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Team members say they have reached a broader audience with their Brain Break booklets than originally intended. When they presented at the Washington Learning Connection Summit in May, they received interest from other school districts and state organizations.

Medina, the UW professor, told The News Tribune he’s pleased with what Bethel is doing.

“Anything getting the kids up and moving is very good,” he said.


Contact Michael Sandner at The cost of a booklet is $10. The money goes back into the cost of the materials and to pay for PE equipment.

Eva Revear: 253-597-8670

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