Asumag 2645 Headshot Paul Erickson

Facility Planning: Heart and Head

June 1, 2016
Incorporating both physical and mental exercise in learning.

Physical exercise helps build muscle and stamina, but it also increases the brain’s production of neurochemicals that improve memory, attention span, decision-making skills, and nerve/brain cell growth. Facilities and programs that encourage physical activity among students have the potential to improve students’ health as well as their academic performance.  

Encouraging physical activity among students is vital. A sedentary lifestyle has supplanted smoking as the preeminent threat in society. Obesity in young people has tripled since 1980, according to The National Center for Health Statistics, and more than 12.5 million children aged 2 to 19 are considered overweight. The Centers for Disease Control School Health Index identifies poor eating habits and physical inactivity as the cause of more than 300,000 deaths among U.S. adults (only tobacco use contributes more). Overweight children are at risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity as adults.

Physical exercise increases our bodies’ ability to resist disease and more easily take advantage of medical advances. 

Schools and universities are positioned to play a major role in instilling a mindset of movement in our children. Spaces that educators and architects envision and design can have a dramatic effect in shaping the physical development of learners. 

Schools would benefit from widespread availability of fitness-wellness areas for cardio equipment, and spaces for aerobics, gymnastics, strength training and free weights. Provisions for rock or rope climbing apparatus, batting cages, wrestling mats, and basketball/volleyball courts are essential. Although many of these spaces are available at secondary and post-secondary schools, administrators should consider scaled-down versions for primary schools.

Outdoor spaces should include play structures, playfields, running tracks, tennis courts, walking trails, and stationary exercise equipment. Additional spaces may include a fieldhouse, swimming pool, ice rink and wrestling area. Students also may benefit from fitness programs that incorporate physically interactive video games, requiring floor space and multimedia equipment.

These types of physical activities promote social interaction and stimulate the brain. Partnerships with outside groups may enable schools to share resources with adjacent parks; construct gyms jointly used by schools and the community at large; link school grounds with neighborhood pedestrian and bike paths, and construct school facilities that also function as community centers. 

Students should strive to complete 60 minutes a day of physical exercise, but that is impossible to achieve through physical education classes alone. Anti-sedentary learning may take place in spaces for visual and performing arts, STEM, and industrial technology programs. In core curricular learning spaces, flexible furniture enables students to sit, stand and lean while learning. Using exercise balls as seating promotes physical activity while potentially reducing behavior issues. Portable furniture gives learners an opportunity to customize classroom space for instruction, individual or group work and peer presentations. Movement from space to space throughout the day produces physical activity that stimulates the brain. Outdoor learning in amphitheaters, landscape/garden/pond areas, pathways, plazas and shelters supercharges a student’s mind. 

To provide a complete package for the heart and the head, education institutions should strive to design facilities that support changes in education pedagogy. Designs enhancing the connection of physical activity with brain stimulation generate creative new ways of learning. It’s time to embrace them.

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