Lockdown restrictions have affected everyone’s activity levels.
Playgrounds were empty, sports clubs were silent and swimming pools shut. Online PE with Joe Wicks just isn’t the same as playing your favourite football game in the park with your best friends.
Figures from Sport England show that the majority of young people failed to meet the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise in the 2019/20 academic year.
And almost a third of children (2.3 million) were classed as ‘inactive’ thanks to restrictions during lockdown, not even doing 30 minutes of exercise per day.
Exercise does a world of good
This sedentary living will have taken its toll. The positive impact of physical activity on children is a scientific fact. And it’s not just about maintaining a healthy weight.
Exercise strengthens bones and organs and improves coordination, balance, posture and flexibility. It also reduces the risk of developing heart disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes in later life.
Then there’s the wellbeing side of it. Active children are more likely to sleep well at night, making it easier to concentrate and get along with others at school. Not to mention the effect of lowering anxiety levels.
Right to play
Now restrictions are easing and we are able to get out and about more, we may start to feel we can go back to what was. But levels of inactivity are creeping up, which is having an effect on children’s access to play and their ability to concentrate.
Play is not only fun for kids, it helps them develop socially and emotionally too. Playing with children from different backgrounds and encouraging them to think critically and solve problems as they build confidence and learn new skills.
Think about a child who attempts to go on a roundabout for the first time. There’s the coordination and strength needed to learn to push the roundabout round. Then they have to figure out how to get on it once it’s moving. This requires courage and a willingness to take risks. They fall off, pick themselves up and try again and again.
Motivation, perseverance and resilience are all at work here. Once the child is on the roundabout there’s a real sense of success and achievement, which in turn builds self-esteem and confidence. Going around and around they start imagining it’s a flying saucer taking them to the moon. That’s imagination and creativity taking over.
When another child wants to join in, they have to deal with sharing, turn taking and working together. In this interaction while playing, the child has learnt about engaging with others, social norms and even independence.
As they take turns to push and ride the roundabout, they are talking to each other and listening too, strengthening their communication skills. This is just one example, but it shows how much can be gained when young children are active and engage with others.
Link between activity and behaviour
Play and physical activity are critical for students at my school, which is in a small, remote ex-mining village with high unemployment and deprivation levels.
Over half of the children in school receive free school meals and more than a third have special educational needs. The lack of exercise and play during lockdown has hit my pupils hard as many live in overcrowded flats with no garden or outdoor space.
This lack of physical activity can be a key contributor to challenging behaviour. It can be low-level disruption like talking in class, forgetting books or being late. It can also escalate to ignoring instructions, questioning authority or being abusive.
As sports lead and SENCO in our school, I can see a direct link between physical activity and pupils’ improved wellbeing and behaviour.
As a result, for some time now our school has been focused on adding more physical activity into our school day. It helped us manage behaviour and improve engagement after the first lockdown and will be a key part of our strategy in helping children readjust to the school routine this time around too.
A physically active curriculum is the cornerstone to improving behaviour at our school. This is not about doing more sport – although that is also important. It instead means getting all children up and moving about during their lessons most days of the week.
We decided on this approach as we began to notice the positive impact that PE lessons were having on many students. Some of our pupils who were disengaged and disruptive in the classroom became model students during PE.
They loved taking part in the sports activities and were focused and well-behaved. So, we thought why not take the element of physical activity and apply it to other lessons, like maths and English?
We started to incorporate activities into lessons with ready-made active lesson plans from Teach Active, which made it far quicker to adapt to the new style of teaching. With this approach, instead of teaching fractions in class, we can take pupils out to the football field where they run around sorting groups of objects into halves, thirds, quarters or fifths and placing them in hoops.
Alternatively, we could set up a number hunt, encouraging children to use a map to navigate the playground to find hidden fraction cards with a problem they need to solve. They are asked to calculate the responses as quickly as they can before the stopwatch beeps, adding a sense of urgency and fun to the task.
Children don’t necessarily realise they are learning when you tell them they are to become dictionary detectives and spot misspelt words dotted around the room, but the results have shown us the learning is definitely sticking.
After using active teaching throughout the school, we have seen an improvement in behaviour as well as more enjoyment in class.
Children of all backgrounds and abilities find the active lessons inclusive and accessible. Confidence in maths and English has grown, as has independence within lessons as pupils relish the opportunity to learn through active sessions that they can confidently engage with.
The best measure of progress was a 98 per cent pass rate in the SPAG test in the year before the pandemic struck, so active learning will be central to our approach to improving behaviour and filling any gaps in learning as a result of the lockdowns.
We have seen so much success in managing challenging behaviour thanks to physically active learning that we decided to set up an annual active learning day for the cluster of schools in the local area.
We used all available space and committed to spend at least half of the day doing active lessons outside. Each year this initiative has continued to grow and it now includes all schools in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, with hundreds of children of all abilities taking part.
We are hoping it will be a good way to get students together again if it is safe to do so this summer. Outdoor class areas will be set up and students can jump, hop and skip their way through active lessons.
The sounds of children playing will be heard throughout the playground. They’ll be having much too much fun to even think about being disruptive or engage in challenging behaviour.
And they will be reaping all of the benefits of physical activity and play, without even realising they are learning. The positives are numerous for children and teachers alike.
How to get physical
- Games work well to get kids active and having fun. Think about playing charades in the classroom to act out the meanings of new words and expand their vocabulary
- Get children up and moving as much as possible. This can even be at their desk where they could jump up and down while learning numbers. The same activity can be played outside with equipment, like hopping over a bean bag or a small cone while reciting times tables
- Don’t forget the excitement of competition. Teams can race against one another to find the correct answer to a comprehension question. Or pairs of children can compete to see how many balls they can throw into a box, counting how many balls reached the box and calculating their score
- Download free active lesson plans from teachactive.org
Joel Beeden is an expert SENCO, sport, mental health, wellbeing lead and promoter of active learning. He is a Year 6 teacher at Duckmanton Primary School in Derbyshire. His school uses lesson plans from teachactive.org.