by Kelly Williamson, Principal, Dawson Elementary, Holden, MA
Balance. Let’s face it, in this climate of increasing demands on educators to hold kids to higher and higher standards, maintaining a balance which ensures that they are still afforded a childhood can be a significant challenge. Logic may lead some to believe that if you want higher student achievement, you increase the amount of time students spend on academics. Schools across the country are reducing the amount of recess and related arts time for their students in exchange for more academics, which I personally find to be a disturbing trend. However, at the same time, I am guilty of applying this theory to my own life; as a first-year principal, I took away my own recess in order to focus my time on my new role. I am an avid runner, and early on in the year, I decided I didn’t have time to run, because I had too many new responsibilities. I quickly discovered that if I go too long without making time for for this personal outlet, my stress level increases, I struggle with focus, and my performance declines. I know for myself, focusing more on work does not produce better work, so why would I expect that for children?
Clearly, I’d discovered for myself that balance and physical activity are vital to performance, and I knew in my heart what I wanted to do for my students in response. A heartfelt feeling, however, wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to know why I felt this way, and I wanted to be able to share this knowledge with my teachers so that we could use it to do right by our kids. The result was hours of time spent reading up on the latest brain research, and what I found was fascinating.
Scientists have found evidence to support that physical activity is beneficial to learning from a number of different angles, mostly because it enables the brain to function at an optimal level. Physical activity increases oxygen supply to the brain, supports the production of new neurons, aids memory, and enhances concentration. This made total sense to me, simply based on my own experiences. Now, what to do with it? As an educational leader, I took this aspect of brain research and made an offer to my teachers:
Look at your day, identify two times when you feel as if your kids could use a break, and take them outside for 5-10 minutes of unstructured play.
The majority of my teachers took me up on my offer and early feedback is promising. Many are noticing a more inclusive experience for their classes, observing games and play that involves every student; a welcome, though unanticipated social benefit. They are seeing leaders emerge, and they are enjoying the opportunity to see their children be children in the midst of the curricular rigor that is also very important. We certainly haven’t lowered our standards at the school, rather I would argue that we could begin to expect even more out of our students, simply because we are meeting an important physical need by taking a few minutes, a couple of times a day, to remind them that they are still kids who need to run around, laugh, and play.
There is a small grassy area outside of my office window which has become a favorite spot for some classes to take their brain breaks, and no matter what I may be working on, when I see them emerge, I cannot help but take pause and watch them with such joy in my heart. Minutes before, they were working hard to solve a complex math problem, and now they run outside my window, playing Fishy-Fishy, seemingly without a care in the world.
Simple, research-based change, designed to increase student achievement that also makes kids and teachers (and principals) happy? Sounds like a win-win to me!
Kelly Williamson is a first-year principal at Dawson Elementary School in Holden, MA, part of the Wachusett Regional School District. Prior to becoming principal, Kelly served 3 years as the school’s assistant principal, and her teaching experience spans grades 3-6 in the Westborough Public Schools and the Wachusett Regional School district. Kelly is a three-time marathoner, including Boston in 2014, and she enjoys sharing the sport of running with her husband and two kids, who regularly participate in local races together. Kelly blogs regularly for her school community at dawsonschooldigest.blogspot.com.
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