How schools can build physical activity into classroom instruction

Even with students being stretched on and off campus and some in front of screens, there are unique ways to get them out of their seats to participate in exercises

The length of physical activity that health experts recommend students get each day is 60 minutes. In the current environment, most are lucky if they get close to that.

Instead of enjoying lengthy periods of recess on playgrounds and fields, millions of students have been confined to home spaces under virtual or hybrid models and sit in front of computer screens for hours. Even those who have in-person learning environments have had play time reduced.

However, there are strategies to ensure that student wellness and that 60-minute mandate are met. It involves a creative, unorthodox twist – the integration of physical activity into classroom instruction.

Taking even a 2- to 5-minute breather for stretching, a scavenger hunt or a mini dance party can be the elixir students need to maintain their overall health and be more productive.

“Physical activity doesn’t take away from instruction time; it can really help enhance it,” says Kate Holmes, co-director of Springboard to Active Schools, which is a part of the National Network of Public Health Institutes and Health Resources in Action. “It really benefits all aspects of student health. It helps physical health and wellness by increasing the time that students are active and making sure they’re not sitting all day. It can improve academic performance, because it helps to improve concentration on task behaviors and test scores. And it also improves social and emotional health by increasing motivation and enjoyment of learning, while decreasing behavioral problems.”

Plus, in this COVID-confining environment, it can be a powerful tool to bring students together and reduce stress, anxiety and social isolation, Holmes says.

Springboard of support

Springboard to Active Schools is funded through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Healthy Schools. It works with national partners to provide resources, materials, and training for education professionals to keep students healthy and active during the pandemic.

Among them are a pair of new resources they released during a virtual webinar on Thursday that provide sweeping recommendations to schools on how to implement successful physical activities into instruction, including Considerations for classroom physical activity during COVID-19.

They also unveiled Classroom Physical Activity Ideas and Tips, which provide strategies to get even the most fickle and sedentary students out of their chairs and be active. In those easy-to-implement 16 cue card ideas, which can be downloaded and printed from their website, were these exercises for educators:

  • Vote with your feet. An already popular tool, educators can turn simple Q&As with students into physical activities by asking them to stretch and move their arms and legs in different positions when providing responses or when answering true-or-false questions. This activity is a particularly solid, all-inclusive exercise that also gets a virtual audience involved.
  • Crazy Eights. A teacher can turn on some music and get students moving by asking them to do an announced activity eight times, maybe jumping jacks or arm circles. Switching to a different set of eight can increase physical time.
  • Scavenger hunt. A teacher can give students one minute to find an item within their space (while being safe, of course) that has particular meaning. They can up the ante by asking them to find five things, which increases physical activity. Or they might turn it into a classroom assignment by asking them to find three books – maybe one they’ve read and liked, one they haven’t and one they hope to not read again.

“You really can adapt that activity based on your audience or based on a class subject,” Holmes says. “If you’re in science, you can focus on touching something that’s cold or something that can be recycled. It just depends on your audience.”

There are scores of ideas offered up by Springboard in their considerations, from activity breaks such as running in place to vertical jumps, to common stretches such as shoulder shrugs and reaching for toes.

“We really wanted to choose activities that would be flexible so instructors can pull them out whenever they need a quick break,” says Elena Bengochea, program associate at Health Resources in Action. “I know a lot of teachers are teaching in hybrid kind of situations. We wanted to give them different kinds of activities that they can use wherever they are.”

Health Resources in Action notes any physical activity integration should start by address four areas:

  1. Creating a culture of physical activity
  2. Ensuring approaches are equitable and inclusive
  3. Adhering to health and safety protocols
  4. Following the national guidance

For teachers that means being inclusive, knowing demographics of students, whether they have the physical space at home to pull off certain activities and whether or not social distancing can be done in a class setting. Teachers also should be mindful of students with disabilities, who may be able to participate in certain activities but not others. Educators should encourage caregivers working at home with students to get involved.

There likely will be students who don’t feel like participating. A simple strategy to get them involved is to make them a lead or ask them to begin a physical activity of their choice.

The goal is simply to get everyone moving, no matter how minor the activity might seem.

“It’s not just about getting 60 minutes of physical activity through team sports or 60 minutes of PE or 60 minutes of recess every day,” Holmes says. “We know that for most students at most schools, that’s not realistic. Rather, it’s about all of these pieces coming together to help students reach that 60 minutes of activity every day. And then beyond that, supporting students to be physically active for a lifetime.”


Here are nine classroom tips and considerations shared by the team at Springboard for educators to use:

  1. Model healthy behavior by participating in physical activity with students
  2. Communicate with parents and caregivers about the importance of physical activity.
  3. Ask students to share their physical activity ideas
  4. Mix it up with different movements/exercises, and vary the time of the activity.
  5. Play music to decrease stress and anxiety
  6. Be mindful of different abilities and provide alternatives
  7. When doing virtual learning, keep in mind where students are physically located
  8. Notice patterns of student participation and work to include those struggling to get involved
  9. Use classroom physical activity as an opportunity to build community

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at

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