Sitting at a desk for long periods of time while focused on mentally demanding tasks is difficult. Eventually, you might get the wiggles, you may zone out or your attention may wander to distractions in your environment. For students like my sixth graders, sitting at a desk for an eighty minute class period can be arduous too.
Significant learning can take place in this time frame, as long as students are motivated to stay engaged in learning tasks. However, it’s challenging to remain focused and attentive for such a long period of time. When we sit for extended lengths of time, student engagement tends to decline. Multiple transitions and activities, along with flexible seating create positive opportunities help students remain active participants in classroom learning. While on my professional development leave a few years ago, I had the opportunity to observe different flexible seating options and explore opportunities for movement within the classroom, which inspired me to make positive changes to my classroom.
Flexible Seating Options
As you walk through the hallways in a school and peek into classrooms, you may see that seating options can look very different from one classroom to the next. To keep students focused during math class, I offer students flexible seating options. Students can sit on the floor, in bean bag chairs or on pillows, on exercise balls, in bungee cord spider web chairs, and also stand or sit at an elevated table. Just as we all have different learning styles and abilities, we all also prefer different ways in which to sit. Flexible seating gives students options to situate themselves in such a manner that they’re ready to learn and can give their best effort. It gives kids who need more movement the flexibility to wiggle and move while still participating in learning activities.
Offer Movement Breaks
As often as I’m able, I utilize math stations, particularly when I am co-teaching with a learning support teacher and can utilize her additional classroom. Movement between stations is a quick and easy way to get students out of their seats, giving them the opportunity to stretch and make their way to their new station. Not only does it allow students to move, but it also signals a concrete end to one activity and start to a new learning task.
We often try to take a break midway through our learning to get up, stretch, and get moving. While this doesn’t take a significant amount of time, we typically take two to four minutes to do yoga stretches or participate in other exercises that strengthen our muscles and get our blood pumping a little faster. While a few students continue working on their classwork, most students are eager to learn a yoga pose or try a new exercise move. Using fitness and yoga cards that I purchased for my classroom, we stop when it seems like a break is necessary and we reenergize. Once we’ve completed the cards, students return to their seats ready to focus and return to their task. As an active person myself, I give students the opportunity to move because I want to instill in them the passion for not only challenging themselves academically, but also physically.
When I get the cards out, students are eager to hear which two exercises or moves I selected. Occasionally, I get groans because I’ve picked something that is either too easy or too tough, but often my selection is met with cheers and excitement. I love that the movement breaks introduce them to new exercises and we can talk about the different muscles that we’re using. My current students have turned the cards into some serious competitions, as I have been impressed by how long they have been able to hold a plank or how many sit-ups students can do in one minute. Dresses and skirts sometimes impede my ability to participate, but when this happens, it allows me to take a moment to talk to and get to know the children in my class. While this may seem insignificant, I appreciate the few minutes I am able to steal and use toward getting to know my students on a more personal level.
What could this look like in my classroom?
Movement breaks and flexible seating can look like just about anything and I have changed them multiple times since I first started implementing them. I’ve used videos from Go Noodle and YouTube, as well as brain break video challenges that teachers have posted online. At one point, my team teachers and I also tried dedicating a 10 minute period of time called “Brain Break Time,” where students rotated through different stations. We taped a ladder on the floor in the hallway and had groups rotate through our classrooms performing different exercises. While it was something that we didn’t continue permanently, we were glad to have tried it because it lead to other ideas.
There are other options and equipment that can work in a classroom setting. Students love using the exercise disks and exercise bands that I purchased for my classroom. They also enjoy doing squats and sit-ups with partners using weighted balls I made from old volleyballs, old t-shirts, and some duct tape. There are many creative ideas out there that get kids up and moving and while not all of them work for my students or for me, I’ve been able to find a few strategies that fit into our classroom and serve as helpful transition tools. If you’re looking for ways to increase student engagement, try taking short breaks to get students moving and their blood flowing. I think you’ll also discover the many benefits that result!
Amanda Myers has 14 years of teaching experience, a Masters in Educational Administration, and certificates in elementary education and special education. She currently teaches in south central PA and enjoys enriching the learning process for her gifted students (in addition to giving her students "brain breaks" of course).