We have all been there– sitting in class or a meeting, and after 20 minutes our knees begin to feel stiff, our lower backs start to pinch, our feet suddenly want to squirm. Soon, our attention shifts from the task at hand to the agonizing need to simply stretch. Nothing is worse than sitting in a statuesque-like pose and trying to maintain focus. The same can be said for those in online learning classrooms. Notice that the cringy example progressed from physical stiffness, aches, and discomfort to mental distraction from the material. That is why it is imperative for us teachers to incorporate some sort of motion, movement, stretch, or exercise into the curriculum for our students. By integrating a slim portion of the time to stretching, dancing, or any other activity, students not only benefit from the fun but from the physiological effect, as well.
According to Pam Braley, of The Inspired Tree House blog, the “vestibular system is the sensory system that produces and controls movement. The ‘control panel’ that helps kids understand balance, posture, a sense of upright positioning, and alertness in response to movement is located in the inner ear”¹ and is only stimulated through movement. This attests to why people become fidgety during prolonged moments of stillness. This natural human desire to move to cognitively invigorate the vestibular system is unavoidable and can be detrimentally distracting, especially in children. Therefore, instead of stifling any urge to move, it would be more beneficial to inspire it- all in the hopes to eliminate any sort of uncomfortable shifting and dwindling attention that may occur during online learning. By allowing the vestibular system to operate full throttle, you are freeing the students from any kind of cognitive inhibition that would detract from the overall learning experience.
This is where the importance of implementing teaching methods involving movement and physical exertion come in. When students are inspired to stretch, dance, twist, and shout, the exertion stimulates accelerated blood flow throughout the body, especially to the brain. This essentially vital cognitive enhancing rush of blood and nutrients revitalizes the vestibular system, improves clarity, energy levels, and the ability to remain focused.
Brain Breaks During Online Learning
Many times, teachers may wish to take 2-3 minutes away from the lesson to re-center the students’ attention if they realize the class is slowing down or if the students are losing focus. Brain breaks are incorporated pauses during online learning in which the students and the teacher decompress for a moment, shift direct attention away from the course material and, instead, towards a more fun, classroom activity-based practice. This quick activity allows the teacher and the students to return to the lesson with a refreshed and re-centered perspective. Brain breaks are valves which exist to allow the release of any sort of mental or physical tension that can inevitably build up throughout the online learning process. The choice of how to include a brain break during online learning is yours, but the following are provenly successful methods to help achieve these goals.
- TPR for All! Depending on the age of your students, brain breaks can simply be an ice-breaking, student-centered conversation that does not pertain to the lesson. A tactic I am fond of using with older students to incorporate movement is to suggest they use Total Physical Responses (TPR) when they talk. Getting students to mirror back your TPR is one of the main purposes of using it in the ESL classroom. It is a useful opportunity for your students to incorporate effective body language into their speaking practices which not only helps improve their comprehension of words and phrases but also subtly encourages monotonous breaks through movement. For example, if a student is talking about their interests in larger cars during a brain break conversation, inspire them to use hand and arm motions to accompany the words, “big” with extending their arms to the side, and “car” with a simulation of controlling a steering wheel.A great way to encourage older students to practice TPR is to play “Simon Says” during a brain break. Also, if the students are too shy to participate within the first five minutes, don’t be afraid to stop the lesson for a few seconds and play a quick round. Depending on the students’ fluency level, the faster you dictate as Simon, the more laughs you will generate and the smoother the rest of the lesson will be.
- Standing up, shaking, wiggling, and stretching. For younger students, especially, brain breaks are a wonderful opportunity to get them up and moving as to release any sort of pent up energy and fidgetiness. Start with something as simple as standing up and encourage your students, depending on age and ability, to do the same. The simple act of transitioning from sitting to standing incorporates movement necessary for increased circulation.Another great way to begin a lesson for younger students is to test vocabularic knowledge of the body. For example, after you introduce yourself and before you get into the lesson, point to your arm and ask, “what’s this?” Gauge their response, correct and congratulate, then spur the students to “move your arms!” by which the students will wiggle, flap and flail their limbs. This serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it allows you to gauge the full extent to which your students are able to understand and speak, even down to the length of their responding sentences. Secondly, it is an excellent opportunity to encourage movement and fun, which will undoubtedly start the class on a high note.
- Dance! Spontaneous moments of physical exertion, regardless of how small, are great opportunities to get you and your students’ brains and bodies pumping! Dancing with younger students helps keep them engaged and tuned into the lessons. ALO7 incorporates many opportunities for ice breakers and brain breaks through dancing and singing in many of their younger student-based lessons. Introductory songs, such as “Hello Teacher,” and mid-lesson songs such as, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” “Old MacDonald,” and “Humpty Dumpty” are all interactive music videos that are strategically placed in order to generate excitement and movement. These songs are also found on ALO7’s YouTube channel for kids, Ola’s Music Box. Use these songs to your advantage by inspiring your students to dance and sing along and, if your own dance moves are up to par, feel free to join in!For teachers who do not have music videos incorporated into their lessons, do not hesitate to make up or integrate your own. I have found that dancing and singing to the “YMCA,” and starting a wave (like at sporting events) are all great ways to incorporate movement into a lesson. Remember, these do not have to be P.E. grade exercises, but movements suitable for an at-home, online learning classroom setting, just enough to stimulate the vestibular system.
- Show and Tell! This movement incorporating strategy that I am fond of does not even need to be an orchestrated dance or exercise! Not all brain breaks and activities have to be done face to face or on camera. If during a lesson, a student thinks of a prop they wish to share with the class, encourage them to go get it. By walking to a different room, even for a few seconds, it revitalizes the student’s circulation and, by increasing blood flow even by the slightest bit, it promotes a more holistic cognitive reception.Aside from the physical benefits of allowing the student to run and grab a doll or toy, the thought of being allowed to show off their stuff generates an enthusiastic, emotional response. Just as brain breaks enable the students to mentally decompress and physically exert, giving the students the liberty to “show and tell” achieves the same purposes. They are allowed a brief moment to break from the lesson, expunge some pent-up energy by running into another room, and builds excitement in knowing they are about to contribute to the class. Granting them the agency to provide beneficial additions to the class fosters a sense of importance and pride. From observed experiences, I have found the students are very eager to share their belongings. From robot toys to uniquely designed pencils, allowing the students to express themselves in this way is beneficial to the overall lesson experience.One session, in particular, stands out as exemplifying the ideal benefits of these exercises. In a longer class with young, elementary age students, we were in the process of practicing vocabulary which featured various animals. When the vocabulary word “turtle” appeared, a student emphatically declared that he has a pet turtle. I asked if he wanted to show us and, not before long, he ran to his mother, who was happy to introduce their little semiaquatic friend. This slight deviation turned out to be a huge energy boost for all the students, who began to run to fetch their own pet animals. Before long, we had a classroom full of fuzzy feline friends, little nibbling hamsters and, of course, the little red-eared slider that started it all. The lesson proceeded fresh and energized because of the 2-minute brain break that also allowed them to stretch their legs.
What about us teachers?
It is equally as important for online learning instructors to maintain a jubilant abundance of energy when conducting any lesson. Plus, we have vestibular systems too, you know. Here are some tips for teachers to improve their energy levels through movement incorporation.
- Pre-class stretching and calisthenics. I have noticed a significant improvement not only in my demeanor when I teach early morning classes but in my overall mood throughout the day when I do early morning stretching, yoga and calisthenics. I use the typical 20-minute gap between check-in time and my first class to do prolonged stretches, push-ups and other forms of exercise to get my blood pumping. Going into class already energized and stretched out is a great way to begin the lesson on the right note, and the students will surely feed off of your energy.
- Lead by example and participate, too! Students may feel a bit awkward and, perhaps, even on display when asked to do jumping jacks, dance, or even clap their hands. To rectify this self-consciousness and to inspire the students to have fun, do not be afraid to hop in and do the exercises with them. When the students see you engaging and interacting, they will view you less like a stranger on a webcam and more on a friendlier note, easing their self-consciousness and fostering a happy space. By participating in fun, silly activities, you are eliminating the cumbersome distance that accompanies any sort of web-based communication platform, all while promoting healthy learning habits.
- Use TPR! I have noticed that the more TPR I use throughout a lesson, the more energized I become. By using total body language, exaggerated facial expressions, and hand/arm movements, I am not only improving the comprehensive ability for my students to understand and hopefully reciprocate through the use of their own TPR (as stated as a helpful movement tip above), but it also inspires my own physical exertion. Something as simple as making funny faces requires hundreds of facial muscles to contract in some way. This slight exertion helps promote circulation, stimulate your vestibular system, and will increase your own mental and emotional alertness. Bottom line? The more TPR, the better!
- Culture through Movement. As stated above, using your own personal songs and dances are not only great forms of mini exercises for the students but also educational in that it teaches them about English speaking culture.
Movement has always been considered a vital part of the learning process but can prove to be a bit more complicated through online classrooms. Inspiring your students to move either to a song, a game, or vocabulary activity interweaves them into the lesson itself. Rather than the material being presented from a distance, as it is when teaching online, incorporating elements of physical exertion guarantees the students are quite literally actively participating, therefore, making the course all the more relative. By taking advantage of these small tips and tricks to inspire you and your students to get up and moving, you are taking a necessary step in ensuring your students have an optimal online learning experience.
Which brain break activities do you plan to try to enhance online learning?
1 Braley, Pam. “Activities for Kids: Movement Breaks to Help Kids Stay Alert and Focused.”
The Inspired Treehouse (blog). August 17, 2014. http://theinspiredtreehouse.com/activities-for-kids-movement-breaks-to-help-kids-stay-alert-and-focused/.
James is a firm believer in the magic of learning. He is a Kutztown University of Pennsylvania master’s candidate in English literature, with focuses in Victorian and early 20th century studies. He has previously earned a bachelor’s degree in history, minor in literature, from the same institution. He is an initiated member of Phi Alpha Theta International Honor Society of History and is TESOL certified. He has experience teaching writing and ESL at the collegiate level and hopes to expand his knowledge through the pursuit of a Ph.D.
James is proud to have been teaching with ALO7 since June 2018. When he is not virtually transported to China, you can find him tutoring at both the Kutztown University and Lehigh Carbon Community College writing centers. James also acts as the primary KU research assistant, in which he has worked on a variety of published faculty projects.
He is a relentless book hoarder, loves all forms of music and enjoys spending his rare free-time with his wonderful fiancée. He is one hundred percent necessarily dependent on caffeine.