Iowa City students utilize 'Brain Breaks'


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One minute is a short span of time.

Yet, local teachers say one-minute “brain breaks” make a big difference.

These fleeting Brain Breaks are meant to provide students at Iowa City schools a chance to temporarily step away from class work and engage in short exercises so they will, hopefully, return to schoolwork with greater energy and focus.

Teachers have been using the breaks in some classes for two years, and now they’re looking to expand the program.

“[Brain Breaks] takes just a couple of minutes and makes the kids pay attention and focus for a higher level of learning and be more engaged with what is going on,” said Kathy Sadler-Bargo, a fifth-grade teacher at Wood Elementary, 1930 Lakeside Drive.

The breaks focus on physical activity and can include anything from making “lazy eights” with fingers, dancing, and even the timeless challenge of patting the head and rubbing the stomach at the same time.

Steve Murley, the superintendent of the Iowa City School District, believes that the use of brain breaks will continue to expand and build.

“Our goal is to get kids up and active while learning,” he said. “It’s no longer the belief that when kids have extra energy to let them burn it off, but a research-based program that shows how physical education can help them learn because it’s stimulating blood flow to the brain.”

Harvard University Professor John Ratey documents the research in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

Ratey believes one-minute brain breaks are just a small part of a larger physical-education program. In his view, the program should emphasize exercise to help students become more active and engaged in school and to prepare them for healthy lives later on.

“Brain breaks are just part of the package, but if schools paid attention and revamped their thinking, they’d get exercise and play back into their kids’ lives,” Ratey wrote in an email. “The first thing that happens is an almost immediate drop in discipline problems, a decrease in bullying, then an increase in attendance and an improvement on test scores and grades. All in all, it’s the best thing that can be done to improve our children’s lives.”

Teachers have started to see results from the breaks based on responses of their students.

“Garner [Elementary] started using brain breaks before quizzes and tests, and their students started to perform at a higher level,” said Jan Grenko Lehman, physical-education coordinator for the Iowa City schools.

Students also enjoy the opportunity to see teachers engage in the breaks along with them, which can even include short dance steps to “Firework,” by Katy Perry.

“The kids enjoy the silly little things like doing a little dance together,” Sadler-Bargo said. “I do it with them, so it’s fun for them seeing their teacher do silly things.”

Lehman said that the more challenging exercises can become easier for kids over time.

“At first the [breaks] can’t be done very fast, like a gravel road,” she said. “With a little more practice, it becomes more of paved road, and, if you do the exercises enough, it becomes like the interstate helping the two sides of the brain talk to each other. Now, you’re more engaged.”

Karla McGregor, a University of Iowa professor of communication sciences and disorders, has researched similar areas of taking breaks from verbal settings such as a classroom lecture.

“Giving your brain a break can be healthy and prevents inference or verbal overload, and brief amounts of time away from verbal activities can enhance long-term verbal memory,” she said.

Lehman’s long-term goal is for the use of breaks to be expanded throughout Iowa City schools and implemented before the Iowa Assessment standardized tests.

“We would like to see [the use of brain breaks] increased as it takes just seconds to get kids up and moving,” she said. “In that short period of time, you’re going to have a class that [teachers] enjoy and pays attention.”

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