With another school year beginning, children all over the country are entering classrooms where they’ll be expected to sit for long minutes and hours at a stretch and absorb information through their eyes, their ears, and the seat of their pants. But is that really the best way for your child to learn? Is it even fair to ask young kids, who by nature’s design are the most energetic among us, to stay still for what must seem like an eternity?
Whether we’re talking about preschool, elementary through secondary school, college, or even adult learners, schools – and policymakers – have for too long accepted the belief that learning best occurs while students are seated (and quiet, of course). The theory may have been understandable back when they didn’t have the research to prove otherwise. But today we do and it’s important that you know about it.
Today we have research showing that the more senses used in the learning process the higher the percentage of retention. That means that if your child has the chance to experience a concept by seeing it, hearing it, and perhaps also touching it, that concept will have much greater relevance to your child and will stay with her much longer than if she’s simply reading or being told about it. As an example, brain-based learning expert Eric Jensen asks, if you hadn’t ridden a bike in five years, would you still be able to do it? And, if you hadn’t heard the name of capital of Peru for five years, would you still remember what it was? The answer to the bike challenge is probably yes, but the answer to the Peru capital question (Lima) is probably no. Yet, despite the wisdom in this, many schools still insist on pumping data through the eyes or ears only and expect students to retain it anyway.
Additionally, we have research showing that the brain is far more active during physical activity than while one is seated. Eric Jensen has told me, “The brain is constantly responding to environmental input. Compared to a baseline of sitting in a chair, walking, moving and active learning bumps up blood flow and key chemicals for focus and long-term memory (norepinephrine) as well as for effort and mood (dopamine).” Yet schools and policymakers cling to the belief that the body has nothing to do with how the brain functions.
Finally – and this is the big one, from my perspective – we have research demonstrating that sitting in a chair increases fatigue and reduces concentration (our bodies are designed to move, not sit). Yet policymakers and schools implement policies (more testing; no recess; even fewer bathroom breaks) that require students to do more sitting. What sense can that possibly make?
Think back to a day when you were forced to sit for endless minutes and hours at a conference, in a meeting, or perhaps on a plane. Did you find yourself exhausted at the end of that day? Were you perplexed as to the reason, since all you did was sit? Well, given the research, exhaustion is a completely understandable outcome.
In a BAM Radio segment on the subject of sitting in the classroom, pediatric occupational therapist Christy Isbell proclaimed:
“Who’s to say we have to sit down to learn? Why can’t we stand to learn? Why can’t we lay on the floor on our tummies to learn? Why can’t we sit in the rocking chair to learn? There are lots of other simple movement strategies. Just changing the position can make a big difference.”
Fortunately there are teachers – and even some schools – that allow students to sit on exercise balls or to work at tables or standing desks, or to get up and move around when they feel the need. And the results have been more than encouraging.
In one study, researchers equipped four first-grade classrooms in Texas with standing desks. What they found was that, even though the desks were equipped with stools of the appropriate height for sitting, 70 percent of the students never used their stools, and the other 30 percent stood the majority of the time. Moreover, the researchers discovered that standing increased attention, alertness, engagement, and on-task behavior among the students – a dream come true for any teacher!
Not long ago I tweeted the image of two brain scans published by the University of Illinois’ Dr. Chuck Hillman. One scan showed the brain after sitting quietly and the other following a 20-minute walk. The difference was remarkable, with the latter far more “lit up” than the former. The tweet took off. I absolutely adored the response of one teacher, Dee Kalman, who said the images offered scientific proof for her teaching mantra: “When the bum is numb, the mind is dumb.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
So, what’s a parent to do? My advice:
- Given what you now know, try not to worry or feel bad if a teacher mentions your child’s inability to sit still. It is unnatural and unhealthy for children to sit for lengthy periods – and it certainly isn’t conducive to learning. (Personally, I’d be more worried about a child – typically a girl – whose desire to please causes a high level of compliance and an abnormal level of stillness.)
- If your child is struggling as a result of being forced to sit still, gather as much research as possible before talking with the teacher about alternate possibilities (for example, brain breaks, students being allowed to stand or move as needed, sitting on a bouncy ball). Remember that the research applies to the vast majority of children so you’re not asking for special consideration for your child only.
- Take inspiration from the Starretts, who raised money to bring standing desks to their daughter’s fourth-grade classroom – and later to the whole elementary school.
- If your child’s is one of the 40% of U.S. elementary schools that have eliminated recess, fight to have it returned! Children’s brains and bodies require frequent breaks (more on this in a future post). You can learn more about becoming a recess advocate at the website of the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play (www.ipausa.org).
- Counterbalance time spent sitting in school with time spent moving at home! Limit screen time – television and digital devices – and encourage your child to go out to play. Children encouraged to play outside and get active are more likely to do so. If they need additional encouragement, go outside and play with them!
Rae Pica has brought her messages about the development and education of the whole child to parents and educators throughout North America. Her latest book is What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives. You can learn more about her at www.raepica.com and follow her at @raepica1.