How to Get Kids More Physically Active at School

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Verywell / Zackary Angeline

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 addition to kids choosing screen time over outdoor play and sports, schools and homework also increasingly put children in front of computers, even when they are attending class in person. This cuts into the time kids have to be physically active. 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.

There are plenty of ways for teachers and parents to encourage movement throughout the day, from running around outside at recess to signing your child up for an afterschool sport. Here are a few ways to encourage children to move more throughout the school day.

What the Research Says

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Too much sedentary time can lead to dire health consequences for kids. Obesity rates in children aged six to 11 have quadrupled since 1970.

Physical Activity Helps Bodies and Minds

According to the President's Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, only one-third of American children are physically active each day. Additionally, kids spent an average of seven and a half hours in front of screens daily before the coronavirus pandemic. Distance learning and other pandemic-related restrictions meant even more screen time for many children over the last few years.

Research has revealed a significant relationship between added electronics usage and 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 desks—can fall by the wayside. 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. Getting the wiggles out has also been shown to help kids learn.

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 existing research 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

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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.

Less Time to Move

Despite the fact that many schools are offering less exercise for kids, there are some options for physical activity during the school day, such as gym class and recess. Unfortunately, few students get gym class regularly. Budget cuts, shortened school days, and an emphasis on academics mean less time for physical education and recess.

While most students get some kind of recess, it's often quite short and 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.

Why Recess Matters

Ask any kid, and they're likely to say that recess is their favorite thing about school. 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 15 to 20-minute period.

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

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, and it holds for teens as well as younger kids.

Movement in the Classroom

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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 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 three to five minute brain breaks. These mini-activities, such as doing jumping jacks, hopping on one leg, or dancing, give kids a mental reset without taking much time away from other work. Yet they still contribute to children's need for frequent physical activity and add to their daily exercise total.

Before and After School

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Don't forget about opportunities for physical activity on the way to and from school. Walking to school (or riding a bike, scooter, or skateboard) 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 replicate some of the benefits of walking—and to add physical activity to students' school experience. If your child's school has a fitness program, take advantage of it, even if it means an earlier morning.

If your child's school doesn't offer this type of physical fitness program, talk to the administration about getting one established—or start one yourself.

What Parents Can Do

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

If you feel your school isn't doing enough to promote physical activity, see if other parents, teachers, and school staff will join the cause. You can also contact your school board, local school district officials, and Parent Teacher Association (PTA) to share your concerns and gain support.

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 provide fitness opportunities.

By including regular physical activity during your child's non-school hours, you can ensure they get sufficient movement throughout the day.

A Word From Verywell

Although 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 clear that the vast majority of students aren't getting enough exercise. This is particularly detrimental for kids that are not very active outside of school, those with attention issues, and those who are overweight. Look for activities your child enjoys so that being physically active will become a daily habit.

10 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.
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  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):57. doi:10.3390/sports6030057

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. School health policies and practices study:. 2016 overview.

  4. Lindt SF, Miller SC. Movement and learning in elementary school. Phi Delta Kappan. 2017;98(7):34-37. doi:10.1177/0031721717702629

  5. Physical activity, fitness, and physical education: Effects on academic performance. In: Committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment; Food and Nutrition Board; Institute of Medicine; Kohl HW III, Cook HD, editors. Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School. National Academies Press (US); 2013.

  6. 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;50:1177-1178. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096325 

  7. Egger F, Benzing V, Conzelmann A, Schmidt M. Boost your brain, while having a break! The effects of long-term cognitively engaging physical activity breaks on children's executive functions and academic achievementPLoS One. 2019;14(3):e0212482. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0212482

  8. Murray R, Ramstetter C; Council on School Health; American Academy of Pediatrics. The crucial role of recess in schoolPediatrics. 2013;131(1):183-188. doi:10.1542/peds.2012-2993

  9. 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):e20152743. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-2743

  10. Sherry AP, Pearson N, Clemes SA. The effects of standing desks within the school classroom: a systematic review. Prev Med Rep. 2016;3:338-347. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.03.016

By Catherine Holecko
Catherine Holecko is an experienced freelance writer and editor who specializes in pregnancy, parenting, health and fitness.