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Teachers are constantly urging pupils to sit still in the classroom so they can pay attention to what is being taught. But studies have suggested that school children should do some physical activity before entering the classroom, and others that they should have short “brain breaks” during classes and be allowed to move around for a few minutes now and then.

When performing a specific task, mice learn better when they run faster

A recent study by Catarina Albergaria and colleagues, from the Champalimaud Foundation, published in the prestigious journal Nature Neuroscience, has concluded that running while learning can promote better performance of certain learning tasks. The study was conducted in mice and proved that the faster they ran on a treadmill, the quicker and better they were at learning the association between a light and an air puff given to the eye (so-called classical conditioning).

But does this mean that children should be running around the classroom while teachers are writing mathematical equations on the blackboard? Probably not. Nonetheless, the strategy described in the study could be useful for certain kinds of learning, such as learning by association and motor skill learning.

What about the type of learning that happens at school? 

Learning by association or motor skill learning are not what we apply when studying for an exam, or to recall what we ate for breakfast yesterday. This latter type of learning – called declarative or explicit learning - is one that we can verbalize and have conscious access to every time we need it. Unlike motor skill learning, which relies on automatisms and is an “implicit”, non-conscious, form of learning, declarative learning is highly dependent on attention.

Students need to listen and pay attention to their teachers in order to learn and achieve good results in tests and exams. And what behavioural research has revealed is that this type of learning suffers a negative impact when attention has to be divided between two demanding tasks.  

This takes us back to the question of whether students should sit still in the classroom, as their teachers usually require them to do. I have a particular interest in this topic, more specifically I have been studying whether there is a cost of performing two tasks simultaneously, such as doing high-demanding arithmetic task while walking.

It is uncontroversial that attending to or focusing on a subject will boost the likelihood of learning a topic. Conversely, performing more than one task at the same time is known to negatively impact the final result compared to performing each task separately, even if one of them is a purely automatic motor task, such as walking.

For instance, certain cognitive tasks (such as performing a series of subtractions) are known to disturb gait performance. This interference, which leads to an overall speed reduction, might arise when the two tasks compete for the same neural networks, because the control of gait speed also involves high-order cognitive systems. 

Nevertheless, making the motor task relevant to the cognitive task being learned (such as stepping on numbers carved in foam while counting), showed positive effects on learning in preschool children. In this case, the tasks are not competing for attention, so there is no interference between them.

Could physical activity during class help children learn?

We all know that exercise is good for our health. And beyond its commonly known health benefits, exercise has a significant impact on our brain. Studies have shown that individuals who exercise more frequently tend to have a larger hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for declarative memory). Staying active is known to promote mental clarity by increasing blood flow to the brain, thus making physical activity vital to both learning and memory.

Based on the assumption that better learning is achieved through movement, new education policies have been suggested, including teaching methods that give primary school students the opportunity to move around the classroom, to take "brain breaks" so they can refocus their attention and better learn new material. Movement releases tension and refreshes the mind.

So… back to our initial question: when in class, should children sit or should they move? “Maybe children should be allowed to move around in the classroom for learning and not be forced to sit still, but this is all very speculative,'' said Megan Carey, who led the Champalimaud work on mice, in this video interview.

Various studies have indeed addressed the possibility that the practice of physical activity during class might improve academic-related outcomes. But hard evidence is still lacking and more research will be needed to draw definitive conclusions. To assess the impact of different types of physical activity programs, including in-class exercising, on academic outcomes, different experimental protocols are already being implemented in several countries in primary school curricula.


1 Champalimaud Research and Clinical Centre, Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, Lisboa, Portugal

2 ISPA, Instituto Universitário, Lisboa, Portugal



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