Brain breaks are fun but have a purpose

January 20, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, Middle Years

My kids love “brain breaks.”

They will dance and follow directions with an attention I rarely see while they sing songs about syllables or follow brief workout routines.

What’s a brain break?

A brain break is a short mental break, typically limited to five minutes, taken during classroom instruction and work best when they incorporate physical movement. I use them at home when my seven- and nine-year old sons need to focus on a particular task that requires their attention, like homework.

When they first asked me to search the internet for brain break sites they had used at school, such as GoNoodle, I thought they were looking for just another game. But as it turns out, brain break activities are more than just fun.

Teachers across the country are embracing the idea of using brain breaks to refocus their students and reenergize them to learn.

“Yes, it’s exercise and it’s fun, but we’re doing it for a purpose,” said Tom Winiecki, a physical education teacher in the Fayetteville-Manlius School District in Onondaga County, NY.

That purpose is to get blood flowing to the brain and stimulating it so it’s ready to learn, he said. In each of the three F-M elementary schools, students participate in morning walks in which music is played while students walk the hallways. The activity jump-starts their brains so they are ready to work when entering the classroom, he said. Teachers have also recognized that after recess and physical education class, students seem better able to learn, he said.

There is a body of research that supports this concept, and some schools across the country have embraced it and purposely schedule students’ hardest classes after those types of activities, he said.

Cognitive processing and academic performance for both adolescents and younger children depend on regular breaks from concentrated classroom work and should allow students to mentally decompress, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

When teachers see students daydreaming or yawning, that’s a signal that students need to get up and move, Mr. Winiecki said. The brain goes into “sleep mode” after 20 minutes of no movement, so getting kids up and moving helps “wake” them up and get their brains ready to focus on classroom activities, Mr. Winiecki said.

“You’ve got to put your mind on something else, refresh it,” Mr. Winiecki said.

Mr. Winiecki periodically sends his colleagues at Mott Road Elementary School suggestions for new brain breaks and movement activities to use in the classroom (see the list below). These types of breaks may improve student performance and the classroom environment and require little or no teacher preparation, special equipment or resources, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The research on this topic suggests that physical activity can be related to many different aspects of academic performance (e.g., attention, on-task behavior, grade-point average [GPA]),” according to the CDC.

Parents can apply this principle at home, too. When homework has dragged out and frustration is rising, try taking a brain break. It could be through an internet site or app that combines music and movement, but it doesn’t have to involve technology. Mr. Winiecki suggests finding an activity that gets your child up and moving that they may have to do anyway, such as taking out the trash or loading the dishwasher. Maybe a quick walk around the block is all that’s needed.

So when I find myself repeating “pay attention” during a particularly stressful homework session with one of my sons, instead of allowing both of us to get frustrated, I’m going to stop for a “brain break” to get us both re-energized and focused.

I’m thinking of incorporating this into my work life as well, making it a point to get up and move more, either by heating up my lukewarm coffee or checking in with a colleague in person instead of sending an email. I’m not sure the music and movement type of brain break would go over well, but I bet it sure would be entertaining to those around me.

Brain Break Examples

Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her second- and fourth-grade sons, who enjoy brain breaks in the classroom and at home.    

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