Physical health

Students of all ages need to exercise. It supplies the brain with more oxygen, which in turn helps to focus better, makes you more alert and improves your wellbeing and mood. Therefore, a consciously planned physical activity should be part of every lesson. In order to support teachers, the programme Schools in Motion (Google Translate link) was developed, whose purpose is to make physical activity a natural part of the school day and school culture. The programme is based on international science, the research and development of the Research Group of Physical Activity for Health of the University of Tartu and the experiences of the schools participating in the programme.

The 2020 guidelines on physical activity of the World Health Organization (WHO) remind us that exercise is good for the body, heart and mind. Also, any physical activity is better than nothing. Therefore, exercise integrated into lessons has a significant effect on student wellbeing.

Throughout the week, children and young people (ages 5–17) should engage in an average of 60 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity exercise per day, and the activities should primarily be aerobic. High-intensity aerobic exercise and activities that strengthen bones and muscles should be done at least three days per week.

Inactive children and young people should start with slight physical activity and gradually increase its frequency, intensity and duration. Children and young people should be encouraged to participate in physical activities that are fun, varied and correspond to their age and abilities. The amount of time spent being sedentary, particularly the amount of recreational screen time, should be reduced (WHO, 2020).

In addition to physical activity in the classroom, opportunities for exercise must also be included in distance learning. For the organisation of distance learning, the Ministry of Education and Research has provided recommendations on how long a student can use a monitor. Online lessons for grades 1–6 should not be longer than 20 minutes and for grades 7–12 no longer than 50 minutes. It is important to pay attention to the physical health of both students and teachers even when learning outside the classroom. To that end, teachers should plan lessons in a way that alternates mental learning with exercise (Distantsõppe korraldamine…, 2021).

Children who are physically active and in good shape tend to do better in school. Even five minutes of being active improves children’s attention span. Therefore, exercise breaks during lessons create a great basis for a comprehensive learning process. Regular physical activity and exercise helps children develop almost all thinking-related abilities (Hansen, 2018).

Have you thought about the following?

Exercise can be integrated into even the most common classroom activities.

One of the simplest ways to make students move is for the teacher to ask them to pick up the tasks from the teacher’s desk, the hallway or elsewhere. This makes the exercise break a short and unnoticeable part of the lesson.

Using active lesson methods in class makes students move more – they walk to form groups or pairs and find a suitable place in the classroom, hallway or library. This way the groups do not disturb each other, they can work on the task in peace and move at the same time.

Correcting mistakes is a natural and necessary part of learning – mistakes are what you learn from. One way to increase physical activity, learn from mistakes and develop attentiveness is to let students correct their mistakes independently based on completed tasks on the walls of the classroom or hallway. Later during the discussion, you can conduct a round of questions to discuss more complex solutions or confusing answers.

Communication competencies are an important part of general competencies that students should be able to apply in every lesson. In order to discuss answers to questions, solutions to problems, opinions of a text they have read or any other task, students can be divided into pairs or small groups and share their thoughts while taking a walk. Once they have returned, the teacher can ask the group what they learned from each other or ask an individual member what they heard during the discussion.

It is possible to merge exercise and the development of learning skills or methodology.

By following the example of an active lesson and using various active learning methods, you can easily make students move between various collaborative groups or tasks. These activities can be jigsaw learning, bingo, collaborative learning, creating a play, role playing, pantomiming a word or definition, etc.

The task is integrated into an unfamiliar topic so that the student needs to move to recall previously learned concepts or rules. The simplest way to do this is to display two options on a slide and have the students show their vote by moving. They can jump, squat, step, shake, stretch, dance, etc.

  • Example: The teacher writes random letters on ten slides. If the letter in the title of the slide is a vowel, students have to high-five their partner, but if it is a consonant, they have to jump as high as they can. It is a good idea to write the required activity on the slides so that students do not mix them up. The x-breik section of the Schools in Motion website has a wealth of ideas. The same activity can also be done outside the classroom in the hallway (walking).


Another easy way is to take ten pieces of note paper and write letters/words/concepts/calculations on them and stick them on the walls of the classroom or hallway. Students receive verbal instructions and solve the tasks one after the other, which can be checked later.

  • Example: The teacher writes various figures on pieces of note paper and students have to identify tens and ones, spell the figures correctly or write which figures need to be added to produce the figure on the paper.

Students are given matching pairs and they have to find each other or formulate a question/statement and find a partner to ask the question.

Attach coloured and laminated numbers (1–10 or 1–5) on the walls of the classroom to rate yourself, give feedback and express your mental/physical state, using reasoning skills and expressing your opinion.

Self-esteem. It is great to tie self-esteem to achieving a goal you set to yourself at the beginning of the lesson, understanding the topic of the lesson or effort. As auxiliary material, you can use warm-up and feedback cards.

Giving feedback. In order to receive feedback quickly and not have to read dozens of responses, you can ask for quick feedback on teaching methods, tasks, etc.

Assessment. Assessments can be given to group work, a read text or book.

Mental and physical state. It is important to consider that one of the greatest factors for a successful lesson and good student-teacher communication is that everyone in the room feels comfortable.

You can ask students to form a line based on various factors (age, height, position of their name in the alphabet, understanding of the topic). The alphabet does not need to be based on the first letter – you can take a creative approach and use, for example, the third letter of their name instead.

  • Example: The teacher says that the statement is ‘My favourite season is autumn’ and students find their place in the line. This helps to practise communication competencies and reasoning, and afterwards you can move on to group work, work in pairs, etc.

The teacher can prepare various tasks that entail following instructions, such as in language lessons, physical education or human studies, in order to see whether students are able to follow instructions and understand them.

  • Example: The teacher prepares activities in English that require physical activity. By adding kinaesthetics to the auditory and visual side, students can practise the language as well as their understanding of instructions: ‘Stand up. With your right hand grab your workbook. With your left hand grab your pencil case. Now put your workbook down and with the same hand find an eraser.’

A good way to develop students’ creativity is to let them know at the beginning of the lesson that they need to come up with and carry out an exercise break – this also helps to develop communication, performing and formulation of clear instructions.

Students learn best when they can work things out on their own and with the help of rules. Providing the answer has little benefit to learning. Therefore, the teacher can ask students to work things out on their own – this develops their understanding of rules and the ability to use dictionaries/collections. If necessary, the teacher can guide them, but students should start independently.

Make exercise a part of the school culture. Exercise can be both a spontaneous way to take a break from long tasks and a part of recess. In addition, various exercises help alleviate general stress.
  • Posture maintenance exercises:
    • Stand straight and lift your arms to your sides at shoulder height. Keeping your arms at the same height, bring them as far back as possible and lower them to your sides from behind.
    • Place a small book on your head and try to walk to the front of the classroom and back.
    • Lift your chin and press your shoulder blades into your body while inhaling deeply. Relax your shoulder blades and exhale.
  • Do a few balance exercises or watch Just Dance videos.
  • If you have little time or no ideas, do not hesitate to use Vikerraadio morning exercises*.
  • Use children’s yoga exercises on various YouTube channels by searching ‘mindful movements (for kids)’. For example, the video** ‘Star Wars (The Force Awakens) | A Cosmic Kids Yoga Adventure!’
  • Play suitable music in class (eg students’ favourites), to which they can move (dance).
  • Start a silent disco slideshow.
  • Let children choose Just Dance songs.
  • Organise various options for activity or rest in the hallways (marked trails, games, a reading nook, etc).
You can also exercise only a certain part of the body.

Do these when the class involves a lot of writing or work on a computer.

  • Make it a habit to give your wrists a break from time to time, as frequent short breaks are better than a single long one.
  • Stretch your flexors for an average of 20 seconds and do the exercises at least 1–3 times at a time. When working on a computer, do large and slow arm circles with students (when done correctly, you should feel your arm muscles stretch). Another good exercise is to extend your arm in front of you with the palm up. With the other hand, press on the palm and bend it and your fingers down as much as you can. Keep your elbow joint straight. Keep the position for around 20 seconds and relax your hands.

These are well suited for primary school, but why not also throughout the basic school?

Fine motor skills play an important part in children’s development. Various finger games develop the ability to control movements and focus on a single activity. Playing with both hands develops spatial awareness and cooperation between the cerebral hemispheres.***

When using screens, remind the students that eyes get tired as well.

In order to prevent fatigue, you should take breaks and perform simple exercises every 20 minutes****. Posters in the classroom are suitable auxiliary material. It is important to tell students that when doing these exercises, they should move only their eyes and not the entire body or head.

Look farther little by little and then gradually closer. Roll your eyes, looking up, down, right and left.

Sit at the desk. Rub your palms together to warm them up. Close your eyes and place your palms gently over your eyes. Rest your elbows on the desk to make yourself more comfortable. Imagine you are looking into darkness.

*Vikerraadio morning exercises (Google Translate link)
**Youtube video: Star Wars (The Force Awakens) | A Cosmic Kids Yoga Adventure!
***Fun finger game ideas in Keila Lasteleht (Google Translate link).

****Practise with students: Eye exercises (video is in Estonian language) and Improving your vision (Google Translate link).

Meditative exercises

Sometimes it is worthwhile to slow down and quietly meditate or focus on your breathing.

Meditative exercises can be done before and during any tasks that require mental effort. Calming the mind helps to find inspiration and increase your ability to collaborate when carrying out personal or joint projects.

The systematic use of mindfulness exercises develops attentiveness and the ability to self-manage. Doing exercises also improves students’ attention span, self-control and their consideration of others.

  • Meditate in order to achieve peace of mind. Meditation techniques and, in part, goals may be monitoring your breathing, observation, focusing, visualisation, etc (; Google Translate link). Before practising silence, you can move around for a bit – find a comfortable spot, a pillow, etc.
  • Breathing exercises calm the body and mind and help you focus on the lesson with the help of a short break. Here are some examples. Experience has shown that sometimes exercises guided by a stranger can calm the class.

After an exercise break it is important to recreate the learning environment. To do so, finish the break with calm exercises, ie do not move on to the next activity until everyone is completely silent. If students are having a hard time returning to the lesson, use calming music during the break and finish with soothing breathing exercises.

Take into account the characteristics of the student/group

Some people need to be more active, while others do not want to disrupt what they are doing. Therefore, teachers should base exercises on the task. It may be difficult to return to the lesson after taking a break to exercise (especially for younger students), so think about ways to encourage students to continue the work.

Monitor the class and, if necessary, use calming or activating techniques. For example, if students are coming from physical education, they likely need to be calmed down, but in the first or sometimes even last lesson of the day, they usually need to be activated. Be creative!

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