New program helps Michigan kids maximize physical activity in the classroom

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

After two weeks of rain and indoor recess, a little boy in Sharie Murray's special education class at Birch Run Area Schools' North Elementary School approached her and said, "I'm sorry, Miss Murray. I can't do it. I need a brain break. I'm falling asleep. It's boring." Instead of sternly telling him to return to his seat, Murray roused the class with a short burst of InPACT at School physical activity programming. Within 10 minutes, the students were back to work, feeling awake and focused after getting the wiggles out.

"In other years, it was always 'Nope. Sit still. Don't do that.' This gives them permission to get up, get a little bit louder, jump around, and get that energy out," Murray says. "Through professional development and learning, our teachers' mindset has been shifted. We now understand physical activity to be an opportunity to prime the brain for learning."

Based on research conducted in the University of Michigan (U-M) Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory and in elementary schools across the state of Michigan, InPACT offers schools strategies that deliver 20 minutes of daily physical activity in the classroom. The acronym InPACT stands for "Interrupting prolonged sitting with activity." By integrating short bursts of exercise into the school day, InPACT not only improves children's physical health, but also their attention spans, behavior, learning, social connection, and emotional health.

Students at North Elementary School in Birch Run participate in an InPACT physical activity break.
"If you have a child who feels good, who is focused, that is 100% going to translate into better outcomes in that classroom and in terms of academic achievement and success," says Rebecca Hasson, program director of both InPACT at School and InPACT at Home, a version of the program designed for students and families to use outside of school. "Health is not the primary outcome that teachers are concerned with. Teachers are paid to teach kids how to learn, and that's okay. But we also know that a healthy kid learns better. By helping the kids improve their physical activity, we know that that can help not just with their blood pressure and their weight but with their self-esteem and confidence, which can also translate into improvement in academic outcomes." ​

Initiating InPACT

The seeds of InPACT were planted in 2013, when architecture professors from the U-M Taubman College contacted Hasson, director of the the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory and then a U-M associate professor of kinesiology and nutritional sciences. The architecture professors sought Hasson's professional expertise in redesigning classrooms to promote physical activity as a means of addressing childhood obesity. Building new schools to better support physical activity was not a financially viable option.

"[Architecture professors] went to their studios and started asking questions: 'How big are kids?' 'How much space do they actually need in order to do linear movements in that classroom?' 'How big are elementary school classrooms across the state?'" Hasson says. "Then they developed these different floor plans that enable teachers to kind of redesign their rooms to make it safe for movement, because one of the biggest barriers to classroom activity is space in the classroom."

Hasson's work with the architects inspired her to design a new kind of physical activity programming that made the most of indoor classroom space. With the help of Project Healthy Schools (a Michigan Medicine program that provides health education) and the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory, InPACT at School launched in 2018. 

The InPACT team set out to shoot short videos that show teachers how kids should be exercising. They also incorporated videos from existing sources like GoNoodle and Michigan Fitness Foundation Fitbits. Working with the U-M School of Education, they integrated classroom management strategies into the budding curriculum.

Students at North Elementary School in Birch Run participate in an InPACT physical activity break.
"When you're working with 30 or 35 kids, you have to have different procedures,” Hasson says. “It was really about creating an environment of movement in that [classroom] space. We worked with schools to make sure that everyone could implement effectively."

InPACT training has now rolled out to Michigan schools including Birch Run Area Schools, Columbia Upper Elementary in Brooklyn, Detroit Community SchoolsMunger Elementary Middle School in Detroit, Estabrook Learning Center in Ypsilanti, and Jesse L. Anderson Elementary in Trenton. An initial study of the first schools where InPACT was introduced provided essential feedback for moving the program forward. Because the initial group included schools in low-, middle-, and high-income neighborhoods, the InPACT team was able to recognize and address barriers in the lower-income schools, retool the program for those schools, and ensure equity in physical activity opportunities for all students involved.

"At the end of the day, we were able to get 20 minutes of physical activity into high-, middle-, and low-income schools, which was absolutely fantastic," Hasson says. "We're using physical activity to prime the brain for learning. There's a ton of research out there in the cognitive literature that talks about how [students] actually have a much more active brain, especially in the areas of focus and attention, after 20 minutes of activity. Kids just can't sit still for hours and hours. These little, brief bursts of activity interspersed throughout the day help to increase their blood flow, get it back to the brain, and release different hormones that stimulate focus and attention."

Birch Run to make a bigger InPACT

All 26 classrooms at North Elementary utilize InPACT every school day. Birch Run Area Schools Superintendent Diane Martindale plans on expanding InPACT into the district's middle school next year.

Students at North Elementary School in Birch Run participate in an InPACT physical activity break.
"It's not just a brain break," Martindale says. "It actually has led to deeper engagement in student learning, more student focus. Social-emotional needs are being met that, otherwise, we would just push through. With InPACT, we have a more intentional approach to giving them that physical outlet that they need to regroup, to reset, and to re-engage in their learning."

North Elementary second-grade teacher Sheri Bitterman agrees that the several three- to five-minute breaks of physical activity throughout the day help her students focus better on academics. She also appreciates the InPACT curriculum's mindfulness activities, which rein kids back in and create a calm classroom environment after movement, recess, or other stimulating circumstances.

"On certain days, depending on which activity we do, it winds them up a little bit more," Bitterman says. "That's when I follow with a calming exercise — deep belly breathing, rainbow breathing. They do that for one minute and it does really settle them down and bring them back to focus."

Murray agrees, noting that it helps to "read the room" to determine what InPACT programming will suit students best.

"On a Monday morning, they're coming in and they're super tired," she says. "It's important to get that movement in there. But then, come Friday, they're all super geeked-up, all excited and so hyper. Then we play a video that gets them doing higher-impact, more physical, quicker movements. It's really knowing your students, understanding what they need at that moment."

Another North Elementary second-grade teacher, Tracy Periard, also appreciates the positive social aspects of how the InPACT curriculum engages more introverted students.

"During that setting, they are in the front of the room with five other kids that they might not have talked to ever in their life, even though they've been in class with them all year," Periard says. "Seeing them fully engaged gives them the opportunity to feel like they're really connected to a community. InPACT is giving them that safe space to make those connections through physical activities. It has really helped them develop as a whole child."

Merging home and school programming

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in 2020, Dr. Pamela Pugh, vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education, contacted Hasson to ask that the InPACT curriculum be adapted so parents could use it at home with their children. Using the same video format, InPACT at Home guides kids through 20 minutes of daily physical activity developed by physical education teachers from across the state. Now that in-person school has returned, Hasson and her colleagues are working on merging the two programs so that InPACT can make an even greater impact.

Students at North Elementary School in Birch Run participate in an InPACT physical activity break.
"We can get 20 minutes in the classroom and hopefully about 20 minutes at home," Hasson says. "If you pair that with physical education, recess, going to parks in the afternoon or on the weekends, we can reach our goal of making sure that every kid across the state of Michigan has an opportunity to meet the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's] physical activity recommendations of 60 minutes a day."
 
Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.

Photos by Ashley Brown.