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Being Active Really Adds Up

Monday, November 6, 2017 - 16:15

How a more flexible approach to Daily Physical Activity supports student health & their readiness to learn.

According to the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth, children aged 5–11 should be getting at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. By doing so, they can realize a host of benefits, including maintaining a healthy body composition, improving their academic achievements, pro-social behaviours, and overall quality of life.[i] When it comes to physical activity, every little bit adds up and in recognition of this, the Ministry of Education released the Revised Policy/Program Memorandum for Daily Physical Activity (DPA) on October 5, 2017.

Schools are still mandated to deliver 20 minutes of DPA during instructional time, but the new policy allows for it to happen all at once in a 20-minute block, or to be divided into smaller blocks of time throughout the instructional day. This not only makes DPA easier to deliver, but can also contribute to breaking up long periods of sedentary time during the school day, all while helping students to accumulate 60 minutes of heart-pumping action. 

Read on to learn why DPA is so important for students’ health, well-being and success; how you can make the most of the new, more flexible approach to get every student up and active; and where to turn for resources and support.

Why does DPA matter?

H&PE classes alone aren’t enough!

DPA is an important part of the school day. It’s part of the Healthy Schools program, and also aligns with the Ministry’s vision in Achieving Excellence and the government’s Well-Being Strategy, because participating in physical activity contributes to students’ well-being and academic success.

“Research shows that moderate to vigorous physical activity helps strengthen bones and muscles, improves cognitive functioning, helps maintain a healthy weight, and reduces the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,” says Heather Irwin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.

Most educators understand the many benefits of physical activity, but with so much else to get done, there can be a strong temptation for even the most dedicated of classroom teachers to leave leading physical activity to someone else. After all, students already have physical education time scheduled and DPA does support expectations from the H&PE curriculum.

There’s no question that Phys Ed-time is important but, on its own, it just isn’t enough. “Especially in larger schools that are required to share their facilities, many students only get time in the gym once, twice or three times per week,” comments Robin MacDonald, a Differentiated Learning Resource Teacher with the Near North District School Board. Without DPA time, many students could fall short of the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day.

Making the time for DPA can lead to big benefits.

While making time for DPA may seem like one “to-do” too many at first, teachers who incorporate it into their routine soon see that the benefits far outweigh any inconveniences. Aside from the health benefits already mentioned, research has shown that children who are physically active for as little as 20 minutes a day have more active brains, better standardized test scores, and improved attention in the classroom.[ii]

“Kids who engage in daily vigorous activity improve their cognitive abilities.” explains Nick Biagini, Principal at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Toronto. “What this translates into is spending less time on curricular areas while still retaining as much information.”

How can you make the best use of DPA time?

Schedule it in.

A solid strategy for getting started (and sticking with) the delivery of DPA is simply to schedule it into the day like any other subject area. “In a classroom, the entire day is scheduled,” says Lorraine Holt, an Assistive Technology Resource Teacher with the Peel District School Board. “You’ve got your language block, your math block... so have your DPA block. Make it part of your plan, just like any routine. If it’s an afterthought, you’ll never have time for it.”

Another strategy is to keep it simple! “Try putting 20 or so DPA ideas in a jar,” Holt advises. “Then have a ‘DPA person of the day’ choose one.” In much the same way primary students get excited about other daily duties (like taking the attendance down to the office or being chosen to write the date on the board), DPA is sure to become an eagerly anticipated part of the day. 

“Letting kids help to choose the activity also allows for buy in,” explains Holt. “The kids will look forward to the activities and, before long, they’ll be familiar with all of them.” What’s more, it takes the pressure off the teacher. By finding ways to make DPA a simple, predictable routine, you won’t be stuck scrambling to find the time or the ideas.

Use it to break up long periods of sedentary time.

According to the 2016 ParticipACTION Report, Canadian children aged 5–17 spend an average of 8.5 hours being sedentary each day.[iii] The revised, more flexible DPA policy can help teachers to limit sedentary behaviour by building movement opportunities into instructional time. For example, a teacher might consider building a DPA dance break into a unit where students are working on computers to get them up, active, and away from their screens.

Let your DPA do double duty.

Instead of thinking of DPA as something that “takes away time” from core subjects, think of the ways it can add to the learning. After all, when students (literally) put their learning in motion their enthusiasm for a given subject tends to increase.

“In primary grades we had a foam dice,” recounts MacDonald. “The kids rolled the dice and the numbers on the dice were the number of activities we’d do. If there were three dots on one die and two on the other, we did five jumping jacks. Moving up to grades 6, 7 and 8 we tried responding to DPA activities in journal writing and connecting it to personal experiences. In higher grades, we tried graphing our heart rates.”

When using methods like these, you may also be surprised by just how much students retain. “In science class we were talking about types of forces,” recalls MacDonald. “We did full body movements that were examples of tensions or shears. During a subsequent test, when the kids couldn’t remember, I could actually see them making those shapes to bring the information to mind. It really cemented their learning.”

Think outside the gym, the classroom and even the school.

“The gym is never available, so make sure you’re not counting on it,” says Holt. However, hallways and multipurpose rooms are great options for DPA, and getting outside is always a good idea when weather permits.

There are also plenty of DPA activities that can be done “on the spot” in a classroom. Or, for activities that require more space, desks can also be pushed back or reconfigured. That said, there’s no rule that says DPA has to take place in the school. In fact, varying the location can add interest to any activity. For example, Holt has taken her class for a neighbourhood walk while tying the DPA time into a geometry unit. Students searched for geometrical shapes in signs, roofs and other structures.

Make sure all students can participate.

“The revised DPA policy reinforces the need for educators to continue to support our students with special education needs,” says Irwin. Regardless of the activity planned, think about accommodations you can make to ensure full class participation.

“Primarily, you can simplify a task,” says MacDonald. “For example, instead of using a ball, suspend a sponge ball from a metre stick. Consider making targets larger or decrease the need for accuracy. Add ribbons or tails to a ball so that a student with low vision can track it.”

Get students in on the planning!

The real power of DPA, however, lies not just in teachers seeing its benefits, but in students recognizing them for themselves. After all, if students notice that their energy and concentration has increased after being active, the messages they’ve heard about the benefits of active living suddenly become more than just messages.

“They need to experience it before they can understand it,” says Holt. “If we keep telling them but don’t show them, we’re doing them a disservice. It’s really important to make physical activity a part of their lifestyle rather than a class they ‘go to’ two times a week.”

What’s more, once you get the ball rolling, you’re likely to discover that DPA takes on a life of its own. “Sometimes the kids come up with their own DPA activities,” says MacDonald, “which is kind of the whole point! We’re building the skills to be physically literate… so when students come to me and say ‘Can we do this for DPA?’ I think that’s a huge success.”

Where can you find support?

Administrators can help to build a school culture that supports DPA.

As much as dedicated educators can make a difference by delivering DPA in their classes, it’s even more effective when everyone in the school makes it a priority. Of course, a change like this requires the support of the administration.

“I would say that the principal really needs to be an advocate for DPA,” comments Holt. “Schools that don’t do it often have no role modeling from the principal. Principals can also ensure that a spot for DPA is scheduled in the day, school-wide.”

Resources & Supports  

Ophea has a bunch of resources to help with DPA. DPA Every Day is a free resource (available in both French and English) designed to support the implementation of DPA by encouraging healthy, active living and inspiring students, families and staff to prioritize getting active every day. The resource includes a DPA poster, which has been delivered to all Ontario schools to distribute to every elementary classroom, and is available to download as a pdf. The resource will also include a video, available in the spring 2018.

“Ophea’s 50 Fitness Activity Cards are worth their weight in gold,” says MacDonald of another popular Ophea resource. The cards provide a library of core on-the-spot fitness moves that are ideal for DPA. Also Ophea’s BrainBlitz resource, a series of 25 bilingual activity cards, can be used for an active break during learning, as an opportunity to improve attention, or as part of a fun team-building activity. The activities can each be completed within 5–15 minutes and are suitable for use in limited or large indoor and outdoor spaces, all with minimal or no equipment.

The Ministry of Education also has suite of tools and supports within the Healthy Schools section of their website.

20 minutes can make a big difference!

Whether it’s five minutes here, fifteen minutes there, or twenty minutes all at once—turning DPA into a healthy habit makes a big difference. “Physical activity isn’t part of children’s lifestyles as much as it used to be in times gone by,” comments Holt. “It’s the same with adults... we schedule our fitness time. We go to our class at six o’clock. We don’t just go out and play Frisbee with our kids anymore. It’s a societal problem.”

For specifically that reason, inactivity is also a problem that we, as a society, are responsible for solving. Getting kids moving can’t be the responsibility of schools alone, but with unparalleled influence on Ontario’s children, as educators, we certainly have a responsibility to do our part. “If there’s a will, there’s certainly a way,” says Biagini, “and this must be every school's priority.”

After all, delivering DPA isn’t just about checking off a requirement. It might start out as 20 minutes of movement a day, but when led by dedicated educators within a supportive school environment, it can add up to a love of healthy, active living to last a lifetime.