Occupational Therapist Viewpoint: Supporting Home Learning Through Movement | #parenting

The COVID-19 Pandemic has led to significant changes in daily life for children, youth, and their families. According to the BMC Public Health children in the United States performed less physical behavior and increased their sedentary behavior. 

The pandemic has changed how children access their education. Different options for school now exist: remote models (students stay home and learn), hybrid models (students go in part time), or in person models (students come in for in person learning full time). These new models have brought with them changes to children’s routines and, for many, an increase in screen time and sedentary behavior. 

Children and youth with autism tend to be less physically active compared to the general pediatric populations. Due to these circumstances, it is important to highlight the significance of movement throughout your child’s day in order to sustain their focus and attention and promote positive mental and physical health. In this article we will provide simple ways to embed movement in your child’s day. 

Let’s talk about movement:

What is a movement break? 

A movement break is a brief interval of time that allows children to move their bodies and should be done throughout a child’s school day. Breaks as short as two to five minutes can be beneficial, when implemented throughout the day. Movement breaks are a strategy commonly used by school-based occupational therapists. These breaks may be implemented as a whole-class activity or the occupational therapist may create an individualized plan to meet a student’s specific needs.

Why is movement important? 

Research has shown physical activity can increase brain activity. Brain plasticity and cognitive function are significantly improved by physical activity. Simply put, the brain reacts positively when the body is physically moving. One study demonstrated students who had aerobic exercise in their day performed better academically than their peers who were sedentary. Providing your child with regular movement breaks throughout their day can increase their participation in physical activity and other productive occupations. One study found that children in classrooms that utilized movement breaks were 75% more likely to meet the recommended amount of daily physical activity. Movement breaks were also associated with more on-task behavior, fewer behavior problems, and fewer students demonstrating decreased effort.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) gives the following recommendations for physical activity:

  •  Ages three to five: Physical activity everyday throughout the day. Active play through a variety of enjoyable physical activities
  • Ages six to 17: 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous activity daily
  • As part of the 60 minutes, on at least three days a week, children and adolescents need:
    • Vigorous activity such as running or soccer
    • Activity that strengthens muscles such as climbing or push ups
    • Activity that strengthens bones such as gymnastics or jumping rope

For more information on physical activity, visit the CDC website here.

Later, we describe ways to provide movement opportunities for your child at home. We have also included an example schedule of when to incorporate movement into your child’s school day routine when learning from home.

Movement and mental health

Occupational therapists understand the importance of movement on children’s mental health and seek to promote children’s participation in meaningful activities. Meaningful movement activities can include academics, play, and social participation. The COVID-19 Pandemic has significantly impacted the way children are able to engage in their typical daily occupations.  Virtual learning may lead to an increase in screen time and sedentary activities.

Parents, practitioners, and educators alike have expressed concerns with the impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic and how the resulting changes in our children’s lifestyle and schooling may impact their mental health. Changes in routine, loss of social support, and added fears and anxiety have the potential to detrimentally impact our children. Fortunately, incorporating movement into your child’s day is one simple way to promote positive mental health. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical activity has been associated with the development of healthy behaviors, opportunities for self-expression, and the building of self-confidence. Studies have also found that less screen time and more physical activity are associated with a lower risk of symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and life dissatisfaction. While screen time is necessary for your child’s education right now, even moments of stepping away from the screen and engaging in physical activity could decrease these risks!

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Helping your learner

Not only can incorporating movement into your child’s day promote positive mental and physical health, but it can also help improve their school performance. It is important to be mindful of reasonable expectations for sustained attention, based on age. Illinois State Guidelines  recommend the following:

Grade Level Minimum Screen Time Maximum Screen Time Recommended Length of Sustained Attention
Pre K 20 minutes /day 60 minutes/day 3-5 minutes
K 30 minutes /day 90 minutes/day 3-5 minutes
1-2 45 minutes /day 90 minutes/day 5-10 minutes
3-5 60 minutes /day 100 minutes/day 10-15 minutes
6-8 Class: 15 minutes/ dayTotal: 90 minutes/day Class: 30 minutes/dayTotal: 180 minutes/day 1 subject area
9-12 Class: 20 minutes/ dayTotal: 120 minutes/day Class: 45 minutes/dayTotal: 270 minutes/day 1 subject area

In addition to setting age-appropriate expectations for screen time and sustained attention, incorporating movement in your child’s day can also promote improved attention and behavior. According to multiple studies, even adding just ten minutes of movement to your child’s school day has been linked with increased on-task behavior and motivation, decreased reports of negative classroom behavior, and improved cognitive functioning. These component parts lead to improved overall academic performance.

Many children with autism exhibit differences in their sensory processing and behavioral responses to sensory input. These differences can impact classroom behavior and academic performance. School-based occupational therapists often suggest sensory strategies and movement breaks to aid in participation and attention in the classroom. Strategies are personalized depending upon the child’s preferences of sensory input.

Keep it simple and fun! Movement breaks do not require a significant amount of space or equipment but should be incorporated into their regular routine. For example, a movement break could be as simple as jumping in place or taking a break to stretch. Other examples include, having your child help set the table or get items out of the fridge for mealtime. Changing position while your child is completing school tasks can also be beneficial. Instead of sitting your child could stand or lay on their stomach. Whether your child participates in chores, changes positions, or completes a more structured movement activity, it is just important he/she moves!

Sample schedule for movement breaks

You know your child best and what helps him/her stay focused. Use this schedule as a model of when you could incorporate these movement breaks into his/her day. Think of movements that are already a part of your child’s natural routine as well as activities or exercises your child enjoys. Replace the activities in the sample schedule as appropriate for your child.

Wake up 7:30 AM Start your day off with jumping on the bed or dancing to a song
Breakfast 8:30 AM Have your child help set the table and put dishes away
Movement break 10:00 AM Pick three yoga poses
Lunch 12:00 PM Crab walk to and from lunch—no screens if possible
Movement break 2:00 PM Wall push-ups or regular pushups
Movement Break 4:00 PM Arm circles or hopping in place
Dinner 5:30 PM Frog jumps to and from dinner table—no screens if possible
Movement Break 7:30 PM March in place

The COVID-19 Pandemic has led to significant changes in the way that children are educated.  As children transition to virtual learning, they also face a loss of predictable routines, social supports, and participation in meaningful activities. Movement breaks are a simple way to prevent detrimental effects on children’s physical health, mental health, and academic performance. Movement breaks can be implemented easily by parents without the need for any special equipment or supplies. Let’s get our kids moving!


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This article was featured in Issue 118 – Reframing Education in the New Normal

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