How to Add Physical Activity to Your Lesson Plans (and Why You Should)

Do you have a class full of antsy students? You need to cover important concepts but your students are fidgeting in their seats and seemingly distracted by everything. Movement doesn’t have to be your enemy. It can be a valuable resource to engage students in the material and help them better remember your lessons. Plus, you can add physical activity to your lessons without dramatically changing how you teach.

It’s time to get your students moving. Here is the why and how behind movement in the classroom, along with some actionable ways to update your lesson plans.

Why Movement Is So Important

From a young age, students are asked to sit calmly and pay attention in a school environment for several hours. While they have breaks for lunch, recess and electives like gym class, students still aren’t allowed to move as much or as often as their bodies want to. Unfortunately, this can actually hinder your teaching efforts. Bodies need to move — and brains need moving bodies as well.

“Staying active improves cognitive function,” writes Karel van der Linden, assistant principal at the One World International School. “Students who are active throughout the day will experience improved academic performance. Any kind of physical activity can be helpful, not just an action associated with kinesthetic learning.”

Some teachers noticed how student performance and focus actually improved during the pandemic through the remote learning environment. Children would fidget with toys during the class period or swing their legs under their chairs — out of sight because of the webcam placement.

“Many kids who struggled to adhere to the movement limitations of traditional classrooms thrived when they could attend Zoom class while pacing or bouncing on a yoga ball,” mental health counselor Zoe Darazsdi writes. “Find creative ways to allow students freedom of movement, including a designated place in the classroom to pace or a policy that allows students to quietly stretch or stand during lessons.”

You can build movement into your classroom without disrupting your existing lesson plans or pulling students away from a learning mentality. Even small physical activities can have a big impact.

How Often Should Kids Move?

If you are just starting to add physical activities to your lesson plans, you may be wondering how frequently your kids should be getting up or moving their bodies. There are different schools of thought depending on who you ask.

“Every 15 to 20 minutes, all students and teachers should carry out some form of movement, irrespective of whether they have been seated or standing,” writes Stephen Braybrook, author of “The Evolution of Biomechanics.” “This will boost the supply of fresh oxygen and glucose to the brain, allowing the nervous system to rebalance itself and prevent fatigue.”

Having students stand up every 15 minutes isn’t always feasible, especially if they are easily distracted, say Travis Saunders and Melanie Davis, cofounder of the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network and executive director at Physical and Health Education Canada, respectively. They recommend getting students aged 5-11 moving every 30 minutes and every hour for ages 12–18.

“These breaks can be at any intensity, and can include things like standing, a light walk around the classroom or to another class, or a structured bout of organized physical activity,” write Saunders and Davis.

You also don’t have to completely stop your lesson to get students moving. Many educators attach movement to a specific part of the learning experience.

“Each move has a purpose and is integrated with the content we’re learning,” says Elizabeth Peterson, elementary teacher and host of The Inspired Classroom. “Sometimes the movements act as a review; other times they’re a preview of what’s ahead. Regardless, the moves my students make are meant to help math concepts stick.”

Movement can serve as a tool for starting or ending a lesson, it can be a transitionary tool or it can just help your students take a break in between difficult concepts.

Young children jumping in a dance classroom; add physical activity concept.

Building Movement Into Lesson Plans

There are several ways to add physical activity to your lesson plans. Once you introduce it to your classroom, you’ll discover other ways to get your students moving.

Sara Marye, founder of The Stellar Teacher Company, uses the game Quiz Quiz Trade to get her students traveling around the classroom. Each student receives a card with a question on it. They answer the question and then find someone in the room to quiz. After they ask their quiz question and answer their partner’s query, the two students trade cards and then find someone else to ask. Students will mingle around the room until most of the quiz questions have been circulated.

Movement can be used by you as the teacher and by students to learn new materials and ideas. Not only does moving better engage students but it gets the blood moving in their brains.

“I add a few big gestures when teaching new concepts,” says Brittany Lynch of Tickled Pink in Primary. “My kiddos may forget the jargon or technical terms sometimes if I just use words, adding gestures really helps the concepts stick!”

Lynch says you can explain math concepts like addition and subtraction by moving your arms wide (getting bigger) or shrinking down (getting smaller). Students can also act out vocabulary words in order to put movement memories behind new terms.

There are plenty of resources online to help you bring physical movement to the classroom. Many educators are passionate about making learning less static and engaging students in different ways.

“We all love a good turn and talk with a partner but why not switch it up a bit?” says Andriana Zarovska, The Active Educator. “Instead of students just turning and talking while staying seated, you can have students toss a bean bag or bounce a ball when it’s their turn to talk! It keeps them engaged and excited for their turn to share!”

For more ideas, check out the list by elementary teacher Amy Stohs at Charmed by Challenged. One option is by playing “Back to Back.” Each student has a whiteboard and marker. Stohs asks a question and the students write their answers and then flip their whiteboard to check their answer with a partner. This is a great way for students to help others who might not fully understand some concepts. The activity can be done with math problems, vocabulary, grammar lessons, and with history or science facts.

Little boy jumping in an empty street; add physical activity concept.

Movement in Classroom Management

Movement isn’t just for lesson plans. You can also make physical activity part of your classroom management best practices. For example, educator Teia Hoover Baker has had success assigning jobs to students — especially younger learners in first grade. Each task involves some sort of movement, like sharpening pencils or delivering messages to the front office. These jobs can be rotated every week.

“My students felt a sense of pride and responsibility,” she writes. “These go a long way toward building self-esteem and focus.”

Aileen Miracle of Mrs. Miracle’s Music Room shares multiple activities that build movement into the music classroom. You can use these ideas to teach music directly or to transition from one subject to the next in the general classroom.

In one activity, Mrs. Miracle turns on a song with a steady beat and does a series of motions to the beat. This could include marching in place or swaying from side to side. The music catches the attention of students and gets them moving while keeping their attention focused on you.

Carina Powers, CEO at Phonics in Motion, writes about the benefits of brain breaks in the classroom. Brain breaks are brief periods of movement where kids can satisfy their need to release some of their energy.

“These brain breaks only last a minute, but studies have shown that students benefit when presented with the opportunity to use kinesthetic movement in the classroom, they show improvement in memory, mood, attention, and achievement,” writes Powers.

Dance and movement psychotherapist Jasmine Dowery uses a mirroring exercise to engage students emotionally during the day. “I ask students to check in with their body and show a movement or gesture to share how they are feeling,” she says. “I invite students to try on the feeling with their bodies too.”

This helps students express themselves in healthy ways while sharing emotional updates with their teacher. If you see a student drop their shoulders, look at the ground, and mock cry, you can talk to them later in the class to make sure they are okay.

Leave instructions on brain breaks, emotion check-ins and transitional movement in your substitute teacher folder as well. This way your kids keep moving even when you aren’t in the classroom.

Laughing teens jumping on snowy sidewalk; add physical activity concept.

Don’t Forget the Older Students

Many teachers associate fidgety students and movement-based lesson plans with young learners. However, high school students need to move, too. It’s often believed that students should be “mature enough” to sit still for several hours, but they are just as likely to become exhausted and frustrated by sitting still. Moving feels great whatever your age.

“High school is one of the hardest times in a person’s life,” says teacher Simona Johnes at Science and Literacy. “You most likely can think back and remember what it was like to be in high school. The repetition of lectures, notetaking, presentations, and exams was daunting.”

Johnes created a list of several brain breaks for high school students, including card games, dancing and “would you rather” questions. You can also tap into some classroom layouts and activities that might get left in elementary and middle school classrooms. One example is the use of learning stations.

“When we think of stations or centers we often think of young children moving around the room to various activities,” writes the team at Ditch That Textbook. “While stations can, and do, work well in lower elementary classrooms they also have a very important role in upper elementary, middle and high school.”

Physical activity can be built into any part of the day. Start by setting aside a few minutes each day for classroom movement and see how your students respond. Before you know it, your kids might be marching, bouncing, dancing and shaking into the next reading level.

Images by: candy18/©, jackf/©, Alvin Mahmudov, Zachary Nelson