School is fun! Unfortunately, that statement has become an oxymoron for too many – kids and adults. Pressure to have only seat time is strong, and, while it is recognized that exercise is good for kids (and adults), too often it is considered non-essential or even a chore. Thoughtful utilization of Exergaming equipment, however, can provide a unique educational experience at a school that can positively influence lives both during and beyond the school day. As one teacher commented, “Sometimes you give a little to get a lot.” Exergaming use in schools can provide multiple applications that benefit the students and staff – including fun.
Play and Social –
One often-overlooked application of Exergaming is the importance of play and sociability that’s derived from utilizing an Exergaming experience. In Stuart Brown’s work and that of Peter Gray, a compelling rationale is offered for the role of play and sociability in the educational process. These researchers (and others) point to these as two critical issues that are lacking in the current educational paradigm and that need to be addressed. They also say that the absence of play and sociability can make school an unmotivating, and even punitive, experience. The joy of playing – both with peers and students and staff together – is one of the benefits of Exergaming that students and staff report, something that has positively affected the climate and relationships in the classroom and in the school.
According to John Ratey, MD, “Exercise is the single most powerful tool that you have to optimize your brain function.” The reason for that is that exercise releases chemicals in muscles (FNDC5, leading to irisin) that cause the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors in the brain, which, in turn, lead to the creation and strengthening of brain cells involved with memory and learning. If we know that exercise improves brain function, then it should be considered a fundamental part of a child’s education.
The research is clear about how exercise improves behavior. Exercise releases endorphins and serotonin, both of which elevate mood, which in turn improves brain function. Numerous studies have found that exercise decreases aggression, improves focus, and improves mood. Case studies have demonstrated significant decreases in discipline, decreases in the severity of infractions, improved compliance, and improved pro-social behaviors. The person who is happier performs better than one who is in a bad mood or depressed.
“Time In” is a strategy that uses targeted, antecedent exercise for students with ADHD. Exergaming, especially, is a form of exercise that increases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is usually in low supply for people with ADHD. It, plus others, such as norepinephrine, are involved with activating the attention system and sustained focus. Schools that have successfully implemented “Time In” have seen significant improvements in students’ ability to focus and learn. The most important thing about the “Time In” strategy is that it works with the physiology of ADHD kids to help them be successful in an environment that normally requires prolonged seat time. The other positive of the “Time In” strategy is that parents see it as a natural way to work with their child’s ADHD. Maybe not for all kids with ADHD, but for many, this strategy alone will provide the needed support for a child to be successful in the classroom. As one parent said so candidly, “Why isn’t every school doing this for ADHD kids?”
When students are doing well in school and teachers are reinforcing those desired behaviors, the idea of rewards is an often-employed motivational strategy. Too often, however, those rewards are in the form of food – particularly sugars and fats such as candy, pizza parties, ice cream, soda, etc. – foods that should be limited, not encouraged. Exergaming has proven to be a healthy exception to the usual food rewards – and one that the students desire. The reason Exergaming is such a powerful reward is that it combines the students’ natural interest in technology and playing with friends with exercise. Considering that kids get little time to play, this becomes a powerful motivator.
It is well-known that we have a national epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic disorders. With increasing exercise being a key part of turning that around, the challenge is to get people to be physically active. While some students are involved in sports, many do not participate in that or any other form of physical activity. In addition, we know, from the research, that the activity level for girls drops dramatically as they progress through school. That the amount of PE that is offered in school has dropped dramatically in the last 10 years compounds the situation. In both of these instances, Exergaming offers an alternative for turning those trends around. Even more important, as John Ratey and Jake Sattelmair state in “Mandate for Movement: Schools as Agents of Change”: “…empirical evidence consistently demonstrates that the vast majority of many chronic diseases can be entirely prevented through lifestyle modification, with physical activity as an integral component…By fulfilling the evolutionary mandate for movement, school-based physical activity programs that combine daily physical education (PE), activity breaks, and physically active homework have been shown to lower students’ body fat, improve aerobic fitness, and lower cardiovascular risk.”
Ratey and Sattelmair say it well, “The overwhelming evidence for the beneficial effects of physical activity on students’ health, physiology, cognition, psychosocial well-being, and academic performance speaks to the enormous impact on students’ well-being and education that schools can have by implementing the aforementioned policies [incorporating daily fitness-based PE and physical activity into each school day], as well as the tragic outcomes that result when schools remain sedentary. ..a “fit body optimizes brain function.”
The one element that is connected to every application listed above is the fun and motivation that Exergaming provides. We have found that, in schools that implemented Exergaming labs, students have reported a higher level of satisfaction and interest in their school experience. Teachers in these same schools have reported a positive change in the overall climate of both their classes and the school.