If you were to approach my grandmother and ask her opinion on what’s wrong with “kids these days,” she’d vehemently reply (in a heavy Brooklyn accent), “Kids these days! All they do is sit around, watch television, and play video games. They need to get up and play outside!”
Well, Grandma, an increasing amount of evidence-based research indicates that you may be onto something. Is there a deficit in the amount of exercise our students are getting? Could a solution as simple as regular exercise solve a multitude of problems for our students? However, in order to appropriately address this argument, we’ll need to break it down into its separate components:
“Kids these days!”
Is it really true that “kids these days” aren’t actively playing (exercising) as much as kids used to “back in the day”? It may or may not surprise you that, on average, children are indeed less physically fit today than their parents (and grandparents) were as children. Here are some of the facts:
• Today, around 18% of US children between the ages of 6-11 are obese (as opposed to just 7% in 1980).
• According to data recorded on 25 million children from 28 countries, kids today take about 90 seconds longer to run a mile than their parents did 30 years ago.
• Since 1975, kids’ physical endurance levels have fallen by a global average of 5% each decade.
• Only one in three US children are physically active every day.
• By the time they enter kindergarten, 12.4% of students in the US are obese, and another 14.9% are overweight.
Why, then, are students less active “these days” than they were “back in the day”?
The short answer is technology.
“All they do is sit around, watch television, and play video games!”
Again, it seems that Grandma hit the nail on the head with this one. In the United States, the average child spends a little over seven and a half hours per day in front of a screen. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services shows that this trend continues as children progress through school, as nearly one-third of high school students play video games for three or more hours on an average school day. This is a staggering amount of time, especially when limiting students’ screen time to under two hours a day is linked to improved cognition.
Another study in Britain seems to echo these findings. Conducted by the University of Strathclyde and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, this study found that activity levels of children in the UK trend downwards after age seven. They also claim that a majority of this decline is due to the amount of time spent on smartphones, computers, and video games.
While technology may be the greatest overall contributor to students’ decline in physical activity, it is also worth noting that other, non-technological factors have played a part in this as well. These include students being driven around by parents instead of walking (likely due to increased traffic and concern for safety), socioeconomic status, busy home life, cuts to school recess and physical education classes (for non-homeschooled students), neighborhoods with fewer parks, and even gender.
Therefore, as my grandma so ardently believes, it seems that more exercise is the obvious solution here. More active play will make our students physically healthier, sure—but did you know that it’ll actually make them more engaged with learning and happier, too?
“They need to get up and play outside!”
As stated before, exercise not only benefits students physically, but also academically. When we exercise, we increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, increase its number of neurotransmitters, and increase the number of neurons in the brain responsible for learning, memory, and higher thinking. In addition, the CDC states that exercise has a positive impact on concentration and attention—both of which are significant components for mastery of new skills and concepts.
To further support this correlation between academic achievement and exercise, a study from the University of Illinois compared the academic performance of students who exercised regularly and those who did not. Students who exercised made fewer errors and processed information more quickly than students who did not exercise.
Beyond the realm of academics, exercise is shown to ease symptoms of depression and anxiety in children (and adults). This happens because exercising causes our brains to release endorphins, which improve our mood and sense of well-being. In addition to this, the act of meeting an exercise goal—however small or short-term—can boost self-confidence in students. Finally, exercise, whether as part an organized sport or even just going to the park, can be an excellent way for students to gain extra social interaction with peers—especially for our homeschooling kiddos.
“So how can I encourage my student to be more active?”
I’m glad you asked! Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
• Incorporate movement into your lessons. In addition to the benefits already discussed, it’ll break up the typical lesson routine.
• Involve your student in an organized sport. Let them choose which one they’d like to play!
• Get outside. Especially for younger students, playing at the park/in nature can be both a great social and learning experience!
• Brainstorm exercise ideas with your student. Allowing them to play an active role in their own exercise plan will give them ownership of their accomplishments.
• Lead by example. It’s easier to remain consistent with exercise if you have a workout buddy to keep you on track! Be a wellness role model for your student by exercising with them! This could look like walking the dog together, riding bikes, going for a long walk, hiking—you name it!
For more info, feel free to consult the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Sometimes, math lessons can be an uphill battle – especially if your student is not particularly enthusiastic about the subject. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my dad one night as he tried to help me understand long division. “I just. Don’t. Get it,” I groaned, emphasizing each syllable by gently (and somewhat melodramatically) hitting myself in the head with my notebook. Without missing a beat, my dad chuckled, “Well, I don’t think that’s how you’re going to learn it, either.”
I don’t remember how the rest of that evening played out, but I do know that there are many families who have stories similar to mine. (Odds are, if you’re reading this blog post, you might even have a few stories of your own!)
Below, you’ll find several ideas to help you further encourage your student’s engagement in their own math studies. Feel free to tweak and expand these suggestions, as you are the one who best knows your student and what will benefit them.
4 Ways to Engage and Encourage Math Students
Most kids enjoy music and singing, so it’s no surprise that this can be a highly effective tool to encourage participation in math, especially for younger students. As an added bonus, songs or rhythmic patterns can also be excellent tools to assist with memory. Want proof? Ask a young student to recite the alphabet for you. Odds are, they’ll begin singing it, since the Alphabet song is how most children learn their letters at a young age. In math, nursery rhymes and songs can be useful tools to aid in counting and writing numbers, while pattern recognition (such as the rhythmic patterns found in music) is an important first step to understanding more complex mathematical concepts, such as multiplication facts.
This concept of using music/rhythm to encourage and enhance mathematical learning is one that we at Demme Learning also believe in. In fact, the Math-U-See® program even includes some pretty catchy “Math Facts” songs, which reinforce skip counting and addition strategies that you can download for free. Oh, and don’t worry if you aren’t musically inclined yourself—your student will likely just be happy to sing along with you!
2) Games and Movement
There are few things more motivating to students than games or being able to move around. Games break up the monotony of the day for student and instructor alike, and there are countless resources available which highlight the cognitive benefits of movement-based learning. Games help frame learning in a more lighthearted way, and allow students to demonstrate and practice mathematical skills in a new and exciting context.
Even with something as simple as a set of cards, you can practice number and pattern recognition. There are also many board games available that rely heavily on counting, subitizing, and addition to move pieces around the game board. And besides, who doesn’t love a bit of healthy competition?
3) Positive Feedback
If math is difficult for your student, they will likely be more easily discouraged by setbacks or failures, and therefore may have a lower frustration tolerance for math work overall. If this sounds like something you encounter regularly, be sure to praise and encourage your student’s effort (regardless of whether or not they provide the correct answer). By complimenting your student’s willingness to persevere and engage with their math work, you are encouraging their willingness to simply try something challenging, which will benefit them in areas well beyond mathematics.
This is the big one. Your own enthusiasm for a subject can heavily influence your student’s interest in that subject (in this case, math). Enthusiasm is contagious, and something as simple as varying your tone of voice can have a strong impact on your student’s willingness to engage with a lesson.
To better illustrate this point, let’s create a hypothetical situation in which you are attending a gardening expo. While at this event, you witness two public speakers: one is animated, humorous, shares personal experiences, and seems genuinely excited to be presenting to you; the other speaks in a steady monotone voice, reads exclusively from cue cards, and lets out several big yawns in the midst of their presentation. Which of these two speakers is more likely to spark your interest in gardening?
In short: enthusiasm is contagious! Be sure to let your student know how excited you are to be studying math with them. Odds are, they’ll be excited to work on it with you, too!
Songs, music, and rhyme are all helpful tools to aid students with math facts. Download some math songs to sing while you’re outside! There are also activities for when the weather doesn’t lend itself to outside math.
Benefits of Multisensory Learning
Before we continue, it’s important to address the obvious question. You might be thinking, “Isn’t most learning multisensory learning? I mean, any time you’re engaging more than one of the five senses, doesn’t that count as multisensory?”
Technically, yes it does. In literal terms, the standard fare of reading text and listening to instruction counts as multisensory learning. However, this “universal” teaching method does not account for the fact that each student processes information differently across different subjects and in different contexts. Further, this traditional method of instruction does not utilize touch or movement (kinesthetics) as highly-effective tools for learning.
By contrast, we can say that one benefit of true multisensory instruction is that, by acknowledging that every child learns differently, it helps tap into students’ learning preferences, allowing them to make stronger connections and form memories. In addition, we are then able to provide students with a wider range of ways (including touch and movement) to show what they’ve learned.
While all students can benefit from multisensory learning, it can be particularly beneficial for students who have sensory or attention issues, such as students on the autism spectrum.
Multisensory Learning and Autism Spectrum Disorder
In education there is a strong emphasis placed on visual and auditory instruction. But what if your student has auditory processing issues? What if their eyes are sensitive to the lighting in your kitchen, and as a result they struggle to focus on the page in front of them? What if they are unable to vocalize their answers, or struggle with the fine motor skills required to hold a pencil?
Typical instruction would require your student to endure many of these obstacles throughout each lesson—understandably making learning a pretty unpleasant experience for student and parent alike. However, a multisensory approach to learning would provide your student with alternate means to both understand and convey information, thus bypassing the initial sensory obstacle(s) to learning.
For example, imagine how empowering it would be for a nonverbal student to teach back double-digit multiplication using manipulatives, such as the colorful Math-U-See integer blocks! Giving students the tools they need to be successful is an integral part of multisensory learning.
Variety is the Spice of Learning
Multisensory learning is beneficial to all students (and adults), not just those with processing difficulties. This is because when we engage with something using more than one sense, it forms more neural connections related to memory, and is thus more likely to be remembered. Our belief in the effectiveness of multisensory learning is demonstrated through the Math-U-See program’s Build, Write, Say process — prompting students to first model the concept using manipulatives, write the numbers and symbols, then verbally teach back the information in their own words.
Remember — the only limitation to multisensory learning is your own creativity (or, if you’re not the creative type, your ability to look up ideas on the internet)! Feel free to make a mess with your student every now and again, allow them to move around a bit, get the dog involved, and—most importantly—make it engaging!