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Study Finds Academic Benefits for Children's Physical Activities

Are certain types of physical activity more beneficial to the academic skills of elementary school-aged children? A Finland-based study published online earlier this month in the journal PLOS ONE sought to answer that very question.

Using the Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children (PANIC) Study and the First Steps Study—two independent studies being conducted in Kuopio, Finland—the authors examined data of 186 children (107 boys and 79 girls) from 1st through 3rd grades. The PANIC Study utilized a questionnaire in 1st grade to assess the types of physical activity in which the children participated: organized sports, organized exercise other than sports, unsupervised physical activity, physically active school transportation (walking, biking, etc.), and physical activity during recess. The authors did not include the one-and-a-half hours of mandatory physical education per week in their analyses regarding the different types of physical activity, but did count it toward each child's total physical activity.

The questionnaire also assessed the types of sedentary behavior in which the children engaged: screen-based (watching TV, playing video games, etc.), music-related (listening to or playing music), academic skills-related (reading, writing, etc.), related to arts, crafts, and games (drawing, playing board games, etc.), and "sitting and lying for a rest." The authors used that data to calculate total amounts of physical activity and sedentary behavior for each child.

Among both boys and girls, physical activity during recess in 1st grade was directly correlated to reading fluency through 1st and 2nd grades. Children in the upper half of physical activity during recess in 1st grade had higher reading fluency through 3rd grade than those in the lower half after adjusting for age, sex, parental education, and the study group. Organized sports and physically active school transportation in 1st grade were not associated with academic skills among all children; however, certain differences sprang up for each gender.

Well and Good

For boys, total physical activity in 1st grade was directly correlated to reading fluency in 1st and 2nd grades, while physically active school transportation in 1st grade was associated with higher reading fluency through 3rd grade. Boys in the upper half of both categories had a better reading fluency and reading comprehension in grades 1 through 3 than boys in the lower half of both categories.

The opposite was true, in part, for girls. Total physical activity in 1st grade was inversely associated with reading fluency in 2nd grade and mathematical skills in grade 1 after adjusting for age, parental education, and the study group. Girls in the upper half of total physical activity in 1st grade had worse reading comprehension and worse arithmetic skills in grades 1-3 than girls in the lower half. The same was true for unsupervised physical activity and organized spots other than exercise—girls in the upper half of unsupervised physical activity during 1st grade had worse reading fluency in grade 2, while girls in the upper half of organized exercise other than sports in grade 1 had lower arithmetic skills.

Among all children, sedentary behavior related to academics (reading, writing, etc.) was directly correlated to reading fluency in grades 1-3; however, sedentary behavior related to music and sedentary behavior related to arts, crafts, and games were inversely associated with mathematic skills in grade 3.

The authors highlighted their findings about recess-based physical activity, noting that previous studies had suggested a similar correlation to time spent in recess and improved academic skills. "Recess offers not only an opportunity to exercise but also a break period from concentrated teaching in the classroom that may enhance children's ability to re-concentrate afterwards," they wrote. "Recess [physical activity] may also offer socioemotional benefits, such as improved peer relationships and an improved social climate at school, which may improve academic achievement." (The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in December 2012 emphasizing the unique role of recess in the development of children.)

What does this study mean for school administrators and those in charge of creating schedules for students? Though recess and other forms of physical activity may not be tested like typical academic subjects, allowing children to roam free for a few minutes each day could help their work in the classroom, too.

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