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Facility Planning: An Educational Movement

March 1, 2016
Integrating physical activity into the learning space.

Does physical activity improve a student’s ability to read, write, analyze, perform mathematical functions, communicate and learn concepts and strategies? Running, jumping, bending, leaning, and moving in general play a role in stimulating our brains to learn. Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), says the brain “exercises” when we perform physical activity. Physical exercise improves memory, lengthens attention span, boosts decision-making skills, and enhances one’s ability to multitask. Perception, mental clarity, focus and motivation also are improved. 

Think about the spaces and equipment needed to facilitate physical activity in core curriculum learning. The design of the physical environment directly affects our ability to engage in physical activity, integrating physical exercise with brain exercise. Gardner’s theory of multiple learning intelligences (visual-spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical, naturalistic, logical) supports this idea. One size doesn’t fit all; flexibility in curriculum delivery models supports the different ways student learn. This equates to providing different-sized spaces, flexible furniture, busy-to-quiet spaces, and formal-to-informal spaces. How can physical exercise be incorporated into these design variables?

Specialized programs enable teachers to modify lessons and increase physical activities. Studies have shown that student time-on-task learning significantly improves immediately after physical activity, especially for overweight children.

“Anti-sedentary” learning beyond the physical education curriculum includes visual/performing arts, STEM, and industrial technology programs. Visual arts employ physical movement (e.g., working the pottery wheel or brush strokes) while stimulating the brain. The performing arts by definition involve some body movement, be it dancing, acting, playing an instrument or singing. STEM programs focus on project-based learning—moving via activity-based teams for instruction, research, and project experiments—and industrial technology includes labs in automation, mechanics and manufacturing that incorporate physical activity in learning. 

Flexible furniture (e.g., chairs with casters, adjustable backs/seats, hardness/softness variables, and adjustable-height tables) enable students to physically adjust and move while learning. Fitness stability balls for seating, which allow for bouncing, tilting and leaning, provide physical variety and brain stimulation. Some schools report that students who use the balls exhibit better behavior. Portable chairs or stools enable a learner to easily configure furniture into different settings (e.g., to change learning environments from busy to quiet or formal to informal). With varied seating that is low-to-tall and hard-to-soft, and adjustable tables, students can stand, squat, recline or sit to enhance learning.

The types of physical activity will vary based on how students are learning: teacher instruction, individual/group research, project-based learning and experimentation, small group work, video discovery, idea exchange, and peer presentations. Students exposed to different settings can move from space to space to engage in varied brain stimulation while getting physical exercise.

Taking learning outdoors or off-campus also promotes physical activity and brain stimulation. Gardening, botanical research and environmental projects introduce squatting, kneeling, digging, catching or running, and a holistic learning experience. Outdoor spaces designed to support this idea include amphitheaters/stages, landscape/garden/pond areas, pathways/plazas furnished with benches, sculpture, and stationary-landscape musical instruments. Areas with informational plaques, sitting niches for individual and small-group learning, life-size dioramas for whole-body engagement, and shelters for class work also provide opportunities for holistic physical and brain activity.

For a student learner to achieve holistic brain development, educators and architects must design physical activity and exercise into the learning space.

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