May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, which means it’s time to celebrate physical fitness and how it can transform the classroom experience. Physical fitness promotes teamwork, healthy living and optimism for young learners.
As a spring intern here at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), I was recently given the chance to accompany ED staff during a trip to the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington, D.C., where the entire community is dedicated to the mission of mind and body wellness. Students in all grades learn coordinated exercises designed to stimulate their bodies and their brains. Students at Brightwood come from many different cultural backgrounds and many of them are English-language learners – and the emphasis on exercise and mental health awareness is just one of the many tools educators use to promote diversity.
During my visit to Brightwood, I saw students leading group stretches with their peers, “tapping” out their stress and taking time to walk around the room to improve their circulation. In a pre-K classroom, the students sat in a circle while one student led the exercises. While they sang traditional songs such as “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” they would do the exercises in sync. The students had just woken up from nap time, so these exercises were intended to reactivate their brains and keep their focus in the classroom. The peer-influence is great to see first-hand because when one student would get off task, their friends would help them get back into the activities. After the exercises the students had a chance to sit up tall, close their eyes, and breathe in unison. Beyond just physical fitness, students and teachers participated in meditation and stretching in order to ease their minds and connect with other people around them.
I spoke with Kalpana Kumar-Sharma, a pre-K teacher who began this initiative. She explained that she started by talking to parents and students one-by-one about the importance of health and offering them individual exercises and diet changes. She then said she was able to expand her ideas about physical fitness and mindfulness throughout the school because of the one-by-one conversations.
The emphasis on mind and body awareness at Brightwood has changed the school culture for the better. Parents, students, and staff are all invested in their own personal health and development and, in turn, they are better to their peers. Having a common mission of health and wellness allows the community to break down cultural barriers and engage in a discussion about an issue that affects everyone. While students are becoming healthier, teachers are also a major part in getting healthier as well. Teachers complete the exercises right alongside their students. Teachers and students working toward common personal goals allow for a better connection and communication. Planting the seed of healthy living at an early age will allow the students to feel more supported as their lives become more stressful both academically and personally.
It was such an amazing experience to visit a school that puts mental and physical health first and to witness a part of its rich and inviting culture.
Brett Swanson is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and a Junior at George Washington University.