One of my former graduate students, who is soon to lead a classroom of her own, requested that I write about brain breaks! And so, here goes! Brain breaks are usually associated with movement breaks, especially cross-lateral movement that is meant to 'wake up' both sides of your brain. While some research suggests it's important to move every 20-30 minutes, I actually think we don't move enough in and outside of the classroom.
Even though students may have recess, they don't all take advantage of playing, running, and actively moving while they're outside, especially the older they get. In middle school, many students choose to sit with their friends and just talk, or they try to stay indoors to continue to study, catch up on missing assignments, or to chat with their friends. Students tend to be quite sedentary as they rely on technology to communicate or as a way to shut their brain off for a number of hours. Students aren't alone. Many adults have also become sedentary as they've become addicted to their phones and spend countless hours browsing, often not even looking for anything specific. This is a cultural problem. We just don't move enough. Of course, there are exceptions, but moving daily and being active is no longer the norm.
As important as physical education is, we cannot let that be the only place where students move. Some may argue that part of the problem could be the classroom layout and design. Why build a classroom filled with individual desks and chairs? Doesn't this suggest that there won't be much movement anyway and that students should sit and write on their own? Perhaps a room with a few standing tables on wheels might be a better fit - as this would communicate that people may work collaboratively and could choose where they would want to work. Some schools have replaced chairs with exercise balls as a way to activate students' cores as they maintain their balance and complete their work at their desks. While this is a move in the right direction, we're still stuck thinking of classroom space, and even office spaces as places with desks and chairs. I think the design and layout of a space affects the expectation of what is to be done in that space. If tables and chairs fill a room, one would expect to find people sitting at those chairs and using their desks to work. With sitting comes little movement, and with little ability to move, comes the inattentive behaviors, because no one was meant to sit all day for hours on end! While schooling may have been modeled to imitate an office environment with people sitting at desks, the work space is being re-imagined as well with spaces like WeWork, but even most mobile work spaces have desks with chairs! Again, the expectation is to sit at those desks and 'do work'. So, yes, I do think the design and layout of a space affects our ability and willingness to move!
Since I teach theatre, I don't have any desks or chairs in my classroom space. It's a big open space. I have access to chairs and tables, but those are kept folded for students to use if needed. So then what do we do in this large open space? Well, anything we want really! I can choose to configure the room in any way I wish. Each student has a binder and where I place the binder in the room marks where they begin and end each class with me. I usually choose to set up our class in a circle for consistency and have assigned spots, but I can choose to make the circle small or large or I can split up the binders into small groups, or really put their binders anywhere I wish! I could also keep the binders on their designated shelf and have students retrieve them if they will need them. But after we check-in or after we reflect as a group, I have so much flexibility since movement is expected and encouraged in my classroom. I realize I teach theatre, but even if I were teaching another subject in the space, I would relish the flexibility of the space and want the same layout if I were teaching social studies, language arts, or even math! I don't tend to encounter the same kinds of unexpected behaviors in my classroom because movement is encouraged and because the set-up is different than most spaces. So I happen to have movement breaks quite frequently in my classroom or rather, there are times, we even take 'breaks from movement'! I also encourage kids to lie down, to stretch, to meditate, to jump up and down, to act wild as their characters, and this allows them to move their bodies in ways that is often looked down upon or not allowed in many of their other classes.
That being said, I view brain breaks as falling into two categories:
1. Energizing Breaks
2. Calming Breaks
Some brain breaks can be quite short, but their use and intention needs to be clear and purposeful. If students are overly excited and come running back to the building from recess, it may be beneficial to do a calming brain break to reset the body and refocus the mind. However, if students seem sluggish and tired, they may benefit from an energizing break to wake them up. If students have been sitting for too long and their blood has drained from their brain to their bottoms, they will need to move to allow the blood to flow! Here are two of my favorite brain breaks in each category below:
1. Cross over hands: Place your right hand on your nose (without squeezing any unwanted goo out) and your left hand on your right ear (so the left arm has to cross over the right arm). Now, switch: Place your left hand on your nose and your right hand on your left ear (where your right arm crosses over the left arm). Now keep switching and look at a partner to see who can go faster just for fun. This cross-lateral move is more challenging than you may think, but it's fun and usually elicits some giggles. This can be done while seated, but why not stand and do it! This is also a really short brain break! (can be done in a couple of minutes)
2. Clap, snap, stomp: Get into pairs. Each pair is to count to 3, taking turns, i.e. A says 1, B says 2 and A says 3 and B says 1 and so on. This freaks out the brain as there are two people but you're working on 3 numbers or eventually three different movements. When comfortable, each pair agrees on a sound and gesture, which will replace 1 in the counting. Then, replace 2 with a different sound and gesture and then 3. It's called clap, snap, stomp, as the number 1 can be replaced by a clap, number 2 can be replaced by a snap, and number 3 can be replaced by a stomp, but of course this can be modified to fit a unit of study. This will take a bit longer, but it's a great brain break to do with partners that will work together on a project - it's a lovely way to break the ice!
1. 4-16-8 breaths: Have students lie down on their backs on the floor with their feet straight out in front of them. I have my students place one hand on their heart and one hand on their tummy. They breathe in through their nose for 4 counts, hold their breath for 4 counts, and then breathe out of their mouth for 4 counts. I then have them breathe in for 4, hold their breath for 8, and breathe out for 8 counts. On the last breath, I have them breathe in for 4, hold their breath for 16, and breathe out for 8. This helps to slow their heart rate, to calm their bodies down, and to focus their energy on their breathing.
2. Yoga: Have students learn a few yoga poses and learn to hold those poses and to breathe through them. If you can teach them a Vinyasa and have them flow through it slowly a few times and then end in Shavasana (or corpse pose) on the floor as they relax, this is another wonderful tool to have students focus their energies on their bodies. Yoga is a way to wake up your brain and it can calm your mind.
What brain breaks/movement breaks do you use in the classroom? What have you found to be successful?
How conducive to movement is your classroom environment? What can you change to encourage more movement?