Active breaks help children think better and manage their behaviour

In a world first finding, Deakin researchers have discovered that short active breaks in the classroom improve children’s brain functioning and impulse control.

While regular bursts of activity during lesson times have previously been shown to benefit children’s physical fitness and concentration, these latest findings are the first to demonstrate that children’s brains also work more efficiently and they have better control over their actions after short active breaks throughout the day.

Dr Emiliano Mazzoli, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) said the research, which received funding from the Victorian Department of Education and Training, was globally significant because it provided further evidence that children do not need to sit all day to learn.

“Breaking up prolonged time sitting down will not only help reduce students’ sedentary behaviour, it also supports the thinking skills critical for effective learning,” Dr Mazzoli said.

Researchers set out to see if physically active breaks of around five minutes duration could improve children’s executive function (brain activity) as well as their impulse control.

They recruited children in grades one and two (6 – 8 years old) at three Melbourne primary schools and teachers at two of those schools were trained to deliver either simple or complex active breaks to their class over a six-week period. Simple active breaks included running on the spot whereas more complex active breaks were those that required attention and decision making, such as games like ‘Simon Says’. The third school continued with usual classes and no active breaks.

Children’s thinking skills were assessed with computer-based tests, and a non-invasive tool, Near Infrared Spectroscopy, was used to measure brain activity. Sitting, standing, and moving patterns were measured with devices children wore on their thighs during school hours. On-task behaviour was observed in the classroom as an indicator of focus in class.

The findings, which have been published in PLOS ONE show that the children who had active breaks had better impulse control than children who had no active breaks. They also had improved focus, sat less (around 14 minutes less) and moved more (four more minutes of stepping) during classroom hours than the children who didn’t have breaks.

Brain activity data showed that children doing the more complex active breaks used less brain power to complete the same tasks as children in usual class lessons, suggesting their cognitive efficiency improved.

“You can think of this a bit like a car driving a greater distance using less fuel,” Dr Mazzoli said.

“Physical activity within the school environment is often viewed as competing with educational goals but these findings reveal the positive link between physical activity, cognitive function and educational attainment.

“Effective ways of incorporating physical activity into classroom time have been outlined in Transform-Us!, a comprehensive school-based physical activity program led by IPAN Director Professor Jo Salmon, that is aligned with the Victorian curriculum and helps teachers and schools deliver the curriculum more actively,” Dr Mazzoli said.


Deakin media release, 23 July 2021