BY CRISTIN HOCKENBERRY, TEACHER, CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY
Every year, approximately one-third of Americans make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. With all the fad diets and quick fix weight-loss plans, our society has become somewhat addicted (over $40 billion is spent each year) to a temporary fix instead of a permanent change. Teaching children at a young age the importance of living a healthy lifestyle is a key ingredient in a recipe for smarter, healthier children. What’s even more valuable is the benefits regular exercise has on children in the classroom.
Most people realize that exercise helps build strength, endurance, and muscle, but what many do not recognize is in this building process, the brain is developing as well. Regular exercise can help improve cognitive function of the brain. Cognitive functions involve knowing, thinking, reasoning, and learning – key ingredients to a child’s education. Many studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between the amount of daily exercise and academic performance. Overall, students who are physically fit and active on a daily basis tend to have a higher academic achievement than those who take part in little or no exercise.
Knowing the importance of exercise is only half the battle. Since a majority of kids can now choose watching a movie in high definition, playing a video game with life-like graphics, or sitting at the computer for hours updating their Facebook status instead of going out to play, it is up to the adults to help encourage a lifestyle change before these sedentary habits become a new generation of New Year’s resolutions.
When most people hear the word “exercise” they think of sweating it out at the gym on a treadmill or battling weights. So what can you do to persuade your child to form life-long habits that encourage a healthy lifestyle and improve brain development without hitting the gym? You can defeat your own couch-potato habits and take part in these age-old activities with your child to encourage exercising.
Play Hopscotch. Balance, coordination, and number/letter recognition are developed while playing this classic chalk and sidewalk game. When you call out the number or letter in which the child is to jump, you are building muscle strength and flexibility as well as memory recall of written numbers and letters.
Take a hike. Walking increases blood flow which circulates more blood and oxygen to the brain. More oxygen to the brain means better fed brain tissue and creates a “cleaning out” feeling that energizes the body.
Hit a tennis ball back and forth. Playing tennis helps build focus and coordination – a process needed when students are learning how to write. The focus and coordination needed to hold a pencil, move it with even strokes, and continue to write in a straight line are all being encouraged.
Jump rope. This aerobic activity makes the heart beat faster giving the same benefits of increased blood circulation as when hiking. Coordination, muscle strength, and the rhythmic components of jumping rope can help develop basic skills needed in learning to read fluently.
Make paper airplanes. Reasoning and problem solving are emphasized when creating a paper airplane. After one or two crash landings, children find ways to make better planes for an increased flight time. What better way to get your kids to run around than chasing after their airplane once it finally flies?
Some more classic activities that involve exercising both the mind and body are: Four-square, Hide & Seek, Duck, Duck, Goose!, Simon Says, Kick the Can, Flashlight Tag, Capture the Flag, and Hula Hooping.
While there is no “quick fix” to establishing a healthy lifestyle, teaching children these age-old games can make exercise fun, help brain development, and create habits that will last a lifetime. There is an old wives tale that says, “It takes three weeks to form a habit and a lifetime to break one.” Whether or not this is true, I don’t know, but imagine the habits and academic advances children will make after a summer of playful exercise. And, I can venture to guess, that developing a lifestyle involving exercise at a young age will free up future New Year’s Resolutions for something a little more challenging.
Cristin Hockenberry has been an avid runner for the past twenty years. She has taught sixth grade ELA and math, as well as coached high school cross-country and track for the past ten years. Currently, she is a sixth grade teacher at Washington Middle School and the Girls’ Track & Field coach at Southwestern Central High School and for the Chautauqua Striders Track Club.