How to Get Kids More Physically Active at School

3 girls pushing carousel in playground

Todd Warnock / DigitalVision / Getty Images 

Many pediatricians, educators, parents, and other experts are worried about the lack of physical activity kids get at school. Increasingly, students are not offered enough opportunities for movement and exercise in their school day. In fact, concerning statistics show that students are far too sedentary at school and at home—a trend that's contributing to serious health concerns.

Overview

According to the President's Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, only one-third of American children are physically active each day. Additionally, kids average a whopping seven and a half hours in front of screens daily. These developments add up to dire health consequences for kids. For example, since 1970, the obesity rate in children has more than doubled.

Alarmingly, according to the 2012 Shape of the Nation Report, obesity rates in children aged six to 11 have quadrupled since 1970.

Research

As outdoor play and sports are sacrificed in favor of screen time, schools and homework loads also increasingly put kids in front of computers. This double whammy cuts into the time kids have to be physically active.

Physical Activity Helps Bodies and Minds

Not surprisingly, research shows clear links between added electronics usage with depression, behavioral issues, and weight gain. However, despite the clear need for students to get moving, only a handful of states require physical education in every grade.

School days are often so busy with academics that physical fitness—and even getting up from their desks—can fall by the wayside. However, while ample exercise is known to be healthy for kids, less than 11% of schools require teachers to work physical activity breaks into their students' schedules.

Additionally, getting the wiggles out has been shown to help kids learn.

In fact, research indicates that physical activity is as important for academic achievement, retention, and focus as it is for physical health and obesity prevention.

Expert Consensus

An international panel of experts at the 2016 Copenhagen Consensus Conference reviewed and created evidence-based recommendations about children and physical activity. They came up with the following conclusions:

  • Being physically active before, during, and after school improves academic performance.
  • Mastering physical skills builds brainpower.
  • Participating in physical activity has an immediate positive impact on kids' brains and school performance.
  • Physical fitness is good for children’s brain development, brain function, and intellect.

Importantly, this panel also stressed that "time taken away from lessons in favor of physical activity does not come at the cost of getting good grades." 

Gym Class and Recess

In many schools, recess periods have been shortened or even eliminated and gym classes have been cut back. Instead, students are expected to stay seated and focused on their academic tasks all day, every day.

Physical Activity While Distance Learning

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many students will be conducting school remotely this year, which likely means that many students will be in front of screens during school—and that recess and PE will be nonexistent.

However, some savvy school districts (and teachers) will have educators incorporate active brain breaks into their lessons and/or have gym teachers conduct virtual PE sessions. And while these kids may miss out on scaling the play structure and biking to school, there are many opportunities for at-home students to work in physical activity.

For example, distance learning students are saved time commuting to/from school in cars and buses—time they can use instead for athletic pursuits, such as dribbling a soccer ball, walking the dog around the block, or having a mini-dance party before, between, or after their virtual lessons.

Parents can also encourage their kids to take brain breaks, such as doing a few sets of burpees, squats, or leaps, as needed, as well as to facilitate opportunities for other active pursuits in between their child's lessons.

Less Time to Move

Despite the fact that many schools are offering less exercise for kids, there are many options for physical activity during the school day, including gym class. Unfortunately, few students get gym class regularly; and even fewer get PE every day. Budget cuts, shortened school days, and an emphasis on academics are some of the reasons behind truncated PE requirements. The same goes for recess.

While most students get some kind of recess, it's often lumped in with lunch. Plus, some kids don't get to go outside and physical activity isn't always required, meaning some students don't get the opportunity to move around much. Recesses can be quite short, too, sometimes just 15 minutes long. Still, ask any kid, and they're likely to say that recess is their favorite thing about school.

Why Recess Matters

In addition to being fun, recess offers a chance for kids to add valuable physical activity to their day—maybe as many as half their daily steps in one 20 to 15-minute period.

Research shows that taking a break during the day, even a short one, can improve student learning skills and memory. Also, the free play that takes place during recess builds kids' social skills.

School recess can even help improve kids' behavior, so it's counter-productive when teachers take it away. For example, one study of more than 10,000 third graders showed that the kids who got at least one recess period a day (lasting 15 minutes or longer) had better classroom behavior than those who got less recess time or no recess at all.

In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is a strong correlation between recess and more attentive and productive behavior in the classroom. This is true even if students spend most of their recess time socializing. This is true for teens as well as younger kids.

In the Classroom

Physical activity can happen right in the classroom, alongside academic study. Increasingly, researchers are finding that incorporating physical movement into learning can help solidify concepts in students' brains. In one study, math and spelling lessons that included physical movement were more effective.

Students might, for example, jump in place eight times when eight is the answer to a math problem. Benefits include that kids engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for about 60% of the lesson time. Plus, they retain the information better and spend more time on task than kids who learn these concepts the old-fashioned way, as in without movement.

Another way for kids to move and learn at the same time is to furnish classrooms with standing desks. There's increasing research to support the claim that these desks provide much-needed physical activity.

Teachers can also promote better learning and behavior with quick (three to five minute) brain breaks. These mini-activities, such as doing jumping jacks, hopping on one leg, or a few dance moves, give kids a little mental reset without taking away much time from other work. Yet, they still contribute to children's need for frequent physical activity and add to their cumulative daily exercise total.

Before and After School

Don't forget about opportunities for physical activity on the way to and from school. Walking to school (or biking, scootering, or skateboarding) gives kids all the benefits that other types of daily physical activity offer. Playing on the playground after school can function as an extra recess. Participating in school-based activities like a soccer team or running club is another great way to work in exercise.

Some schools, especially in areas where it's difficult for kids to walk to school, offer before-school fitness programs to try to replicate some of the benefits of walking—and simply to add physical activity to students' school experience. If your child's school runs one, take advantage, even if it means an earlier morning for all. It's worth it.

If your child's school doesn't offer these types of physical fitness programs, request that they do—or start one yourself.

What Parents Can Do

There are many ways parents can ensure their kids are getting enough physical activity, including urging teachers and school administrators to prioritize movement. For example, if your child's recess is particularly short, ask to have it lengthened and/or for another recess period to be added to the schedule. Let your principal know you value PE and opportunities for in-class brain breaks.

If you feel your school isn't doing enough to promote physical activity, talk to other parents, teachers, and school staff, and ask them to join the cause. Additionally, you can contact your school board, local school district officials, and Parent Teacher Association (PTA) to share your concerns and get further support.

Plus, supplement any exercise your child gets at school with extracurricular activities, such as organized sports and time for active play. Walking or biking to school or going on family hikes can also help provide more fitness opportunities. By adding in regular physical activity during your child's non-school hours, you can ensure your child gets sufficient movement throughout the day.

A Word From Verywell

Research shows that physical activity at school is just as vital to children's physical health as it is for their academic success. It's also clear that the vast majority of students aren't getting the needed exercise. This is particularly detrimental for kids that don't get much physical activity outside of school, those with attention issues, and kids that are overweight.

As a parent, you can lobby your child's school to add more time for PE, recess, and in-class movement. Additionally, aim to incorporate more physical activity into your child's day, such as taking family walks, instituting after dinner dance parties, and having your child join after school sports. Find activities your child enjoys and soon being physically active will become a cherished, daily habit.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Association for Sport and Physical Education. Shape of the Nation Report: Status of Physical Education in the USA. Published 2012.

  2. O'brien W, Issartel J, Belton S. Relationship between Physical Activity, Screen Time and Weight Status among Young Adolescents. Sports (Basel). 2018;6(3). doi:10.3390/sports6030057

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2016 Overview. School Health Policies and Practices Study. 2016.

  4. National Academy of Sciences. Physical Activity, Fitness, and Physical Education: Effects on Academic Performance. Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School. 2013.

  5. Bangsbo J, Krustrup P, Duda J, et al. The Copenhagen Consensus Conference 2016: children, youth, and physical activity in schools and during leisure time. Br J Sports Med. 2016.

  6. Barros RM, Silver EJ, Stein RE. School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics. 2009;123(2):431-6. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-2825

  7. Mullender-Wijnsma MJ, Hartman E, de Greeff JW, Doolaard S, Bosker RJ, Visscher C. Physically Active Math and Language Lessons Improve Academic Achievement: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial. Pediatrics 2016;137(3).

  8. Sherry AP, Pearson N, Clemes SA. The effects of standing desks within the school classroom: A systematic review. Prev Med Rep. 2016;3:338-47. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.03.016

Additional Reading