Brain Breaks and Movement in the Classroom | TeacherSherpa Blog

Brain Breaks and Movement in the Classroom

 brain breaks chess gameMovement in the Classroom

By Josh McCusker, TeacherSherpa Blogger – I can’t sit still. I normally pace back and forth in front of the class when we are doing a whole group lesson, and welcome the table to table movement of small group work. Even when I am in a chair, one or both of my legs are bouncing up and down. I’ve annoyed plenty of colleagues at the lunch table with my tapping. Thus, I completely empathize with students that are restless in their seats, and as a result, my teaching style is centered around activity. I know how important brain breaks are. I also understand that movement in the classroom is needed.  I had not considered teaching any other way and didn’t really know what a non-­active classroom was like.

Stumped Teachers

Fifth-grade teachers at a school in Texas had a confusing issue arise. They taught a block schedule where one teacher taught Language Arts and Social Studies while the other taught Math and Science. The schedule worked out so that they had two 90­-minute blocks in the morning before recess, lunch and Specials all bundled together, followed by two 45-­minute blocks in the afternoon. The teachers noticed that the students in the earlier groups tended to perform better, both in the quality of work and behavior.

At first, they attributed it to the way the groups divided up, figuring that one group liked one subject more than the other until every year it seemed like their lessons went better with their first group. Each teacher wondered if their earlier group just behaved better? Why were groups of the same kids more disruptive and less interested in learning later in the morning?

They changed seating arrangements, adjusted the snack schedule, and even flipped the schedule. None of those seemed to make an impact. Their early group always outperformed their later group.

Mini-recess Making a Difference

The teachers decided to introduce a mini­-recess time to their students. Instead of going straight from one block to another, they decided to give the students a ten minute movement break. The classes went outside for free play and on rainy days they walked around the hallway. One of the teachers used the stairwell for a light calisthenics period.

They saw the benefits almost immediately. Whether they had free play or structured exercise, the students seemed more attentive and more relaxed after mini­-recess. The mini- recess became a part of their schedule and is now used by the entire grade level team.

The Importance of Movement in the Classroom

Physical activity is great for students. The health benefits are obvious and we know that it helps with social skills. Research shows that exercise helps brain functions, including memory and cognition. Studies have also found strong positive correlations between physical activity and improved focus.

The most common objection to introducing more physical activity in the classroom is that it will turn into chaos. Teachers worry that students will run around, hang from chandeliers, and abandon all sense as they bounce off of the walls. Studies show the opposite. Staying active gives students a productive platform to use all of that energy.

Brain Breaks and Movement

In addition to the mini­-recess idea, there are two main ways to utilize activity in the classroom:

  1. Brain breaks: Quick, fun activities that get students out of their seats. They can be simple old-­fashioned games like “Heads Up, Seven Up”, activities based on a lesson, or even just a chance to move around. A lot of teachers play music and let students dance, with the only expectation being that students must keep moving. Cooperative games work well here also. My favorite cooperative activity has students participate in silly handshakes with the person closest to them when the music stops. You can label each handshake and then throughout the day have students find their partners whenever you feel like they need a break.

Check out a couple of our favorite websites for brain break ideas:  GoNoodle and TeachTrainLove.

  1. Include movement in lessons: Just about any lesson can be taught with an active focus. Students can pretend to be numbers, symbols of operations, letters, words or social studies facts. Problem solving questions can be spread throughout the room like a scavenger hunt. A fourth­ grade teacher does vocabulary reviews by setting up an obstacle course that students have to complete to match the word to the definition.

Endless options exist for any of those. A lot of teachers use activity as a reward or as a way to break up the day. Students enjoy it and almost universally consider active lessons to be fun lessons.

So the next time you wonder what you can do to help your students sit still, consider that the answer might be to get them moving first.

Find free downloads for brain break activities, or create and edit your own at


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