By Dan Lawler, Ph.D.
As an elementary principal one of the most exciting interventions I have ever experienced was the implementation of our Exergaming® lab. Our school, not unlike many across America, had a minimal amount of minutes that students were receiving physical education. As a community, because of financial reasons, we saw little opportunity to increase fitness time in our school by adding more physical education teachers. Our challenge was to look for something unique, fun, and engaging to fill the void. After a thorough investigation, we looked at a very new and creative innovation called Exergaming®. We began the journey of planning, budgeting, and creating a fitness center that truly would result in a powerful and effective strategy for kids. Eventually, we implemented a lab consisting of 28 stations using a variety of Exergaming® equipment. Never have I witnessed an intervention where students were so excited and engaged to exercise and get fit.
The lab consisted of many new and innovative ways to engage students in exercise. If you can imagine 25 students dancing on Dance Dance Revolution® (DDR), boxing on Wii-Fit®, reacting to lights and sounds on a Makoto®, dodging obstacles on a Jackie Chan XaviX® video game, riding an Expresso® bike on a simulated trail with friends in another state, racing your Game Bike® car against a classmate while you travel at a speed only as fast as you pedal, or participating in exercises using a Sports Wall® with lights and sounds…well, that is the experience the lab offers our kids. It was no wonder that they yelled and screamed on the mornings when their teacher put lab time on their daily schedule.
What made the experience even more effective was the inclusion of instruction to help students understand how exercise not only made them more fit but also prepared their brains to learn. Before most sessions, students were given a brief lesson on the brain and how exercise helps them to pay attention and learn, as well as becoming fit. At the end of lab sessions, students summarized the lesson content, how they felt, and how they were now ready to return to their classrooms more prepared to learn.
Even though our main objective when we built the lab was to enhance our physical education program by increasing the amount of fitness time our kids received, there were many side benefits that we had not planned for in our initial thinking. We were able to reinforce physical education standards set by the state. The lab also became an incredible tool to acknowledge students’ positive behavior and achievement. Teachers appreciated having something that was so beneficial for kids as a means to reward positive actions. The lab made school fun for our kids thus enhancing the overall school experience for our students. Lastly, every student was able to be successful because each one worked at his/her own level of fitness, setting goals for improvement. Parents also appreciated that their kids were becoming more fit and under such enjoyable conditions. The combination of benefits far exceeded our original expectations for the lab.
One specific piece of equipment in our lab, called the BrainBike®, offered our students a particularly unique opportunity to improve their brain functions. The BrainBike® capitalizes on the research showing that we can sharpen our brain – memory, concentration, decision-making, planning skills, reaction time, capacity to learn, ability to manage stress, and other mental abilities – with practice, just like we can any muscle in the body. The BrainBike® is the first workout program that exercises the body and the brain simultaneously, taking advantage of what the research shows to be the relationship between fitness and cognition. Using a user-friendly 3D software program of 22 interactive exercises powered by pedaling a bike, it continuously analyzes and customizes the training to one’s particular skill level.
With the BrainBike®, we were able to provide teachers with a new tool to address learning traits. Now, when teachers identified students with memory or processing deficits, they could intervene with specific programs offered on the BrainBike®. A frequent inquiry from parents was, “Does this school, and do your teachers, require students to think critically and problem-solve?” The games and activities offered by the BrainBike® challenge students in both areas. The BrainBike® thus offers, not just reinforcement for academic skills, but engages students at higher-level thinking and cognition.
So, where do you start? Our ultimate goal was achieved with the implementation of a comprehensive lab. However, when we first saw the benefits of Exergaming® and all of its applications, we knew we had to begin with baby steps. In our case, we began with two DDR pads in an unused handicapped restroom. That was all the space we had. It was that initial experience that energized us to a larger and more impactful vision. When a school begins to envision what our teachers and students discovered, then they, too, will be compelled to begin this journey. The good news is that the research is clear that exercise can improve academics, physical health, and keep the body and brain functioning at their peaks and that there are new and exciting strategies for utilizing that research to maximize the educational experience for students.
My vision is that every school in the country will construct at least a mini-lab, eventually expanding to a full lab. Your kids would love a little more coming to school. In addition, your children would be more fit, less obese, less at risk for type 2 diabetes, better behaved, and, as the neuroscience is proving, more ready to learn. Exergaming® is a great tool to improve your physical education program, motivate students to exercise, and improve the learning that takes place in your school.
If you’d like to get started, a company that helped us to accomplish our vision was Motion Fitness (www.motionfitness.com). You, your students, and your community will be glad that you embarked on this vision.