School gets results by teaching reading in PE

Jan 25, 2018


Students spin, balance, jump and walk at different stations in the gym at Central Grade School in Traverse City. Each movement is designed to help train the brain to read better.
Credit Morgan Springer

A growing body of research says more physically active kids do better in school. But, across the country, time for gym class and recess has been replaced with more sedentary time in classrooms. Traverse City Central Grade School is doing the opposite though, giving kids more exercise to help boost their reading scores.

Movement Lab

It’s a Wednesday morning in the gym at Central Grade. Physical education teacher Mary Radecki puts on music and nearly 20 kindergarteners hurry off to different stations in the gym. Movement lab has started. 

Each station in the gym has a different activity that connects to reading in some way. At one station, the connection is pretty obvious. Kaylee Hiltwein and Olivia Baima draw a card from a basket full of different verbs. Their card says 'jump' on it. So, the two girls get up and jump in a figure eight on the gym floor. Then they draw a card that says ‘slide.' 


Danielle Daney gallops around a figure eight on the gym floor during movement lab.
Credit Morgan Springer

Three mornings a week these kindergarteners spend 30 minutes in movement lab. Radecki has been teaching physical education in the Traverse City Area Public Schools district for over 30 years. The movement lab is based off a program called Action Based Learning.

"Exercise makes brain cells, and we know that healthy, active children make better learners," Radecki says, explaining the basic thinking behind the program. 

But the program goes beyond just getting kids to move. Each specific movement – like jumping, spinning, crawling – has been chosen because research says it helps train the brain to read. At some stations the connection is less obvious.

Freya Blakeslee is walking on stilts. She's working on her balance.

"It seems a little hard," says Freya. She's never walked on stilts before today.

Radecki says brain research indicates practicing balance will help kids with spatial awareness among other things, which will help them read.

"So the balancing piece would be placing words on a page, reading words from left to right, writing patterns in a sequence," Radecki says.

What these kindergarteners learn and read in movement lab connects with what they’ll practice afterwards in the classroom.

Research-based program

A report from the Institute of Medicine with the National Academies says extensive scientific evidence backs the idea that physical activity boosts academic performance. But – the report says – only about 50 percent of kids meet federal recommendations, which is one hour of vigorous or moderate physical activity a day.

At Central Grade, students get 50 minutes of recess a day, and most grades have gym class twice a week for 30 minutes. But only kindergarteners and first graders also go to movement lab three days a week.


Kindergarteners wait for their teacher to come collect them at the end of movement lab. Afterwards, they head straight to the classroom where they begin their reading lesson.
Credit Morgan Springer

From activity to learning

As soon as movement lab ends, the kids quietly walk with their teacher Andrea Burkholder to the classroom.

"After activity, that’s when you’re ready to learn," Radecki says. She says its not the time to sit and have a snack.

When they arrive in their classroom, they start their reading lesson. In unison, they sound out the components of words like 'wish' and 'lap.' The kids look attentive and focused, and their eyes are on the teacher. 

What's at stake

Two years from now, Michigan’s third grade reading law will go into effect, and third graders who can’t read well enough – based on the state's M-STEP test – might be held back.

"So, I would like to see this program happen so that none of the children that are going to fourth grade have to stay in third grade," says Radecki. "That’s my ultimate goal."

But while some schools might push for more classroom time to help meet this goal, both Radecki and school principal Toby Tisdale say physical activity paired with reading is better.

"You might be able to sit and drill skills just by having them sit and just pounding it in and throwing worksheets at them, but that’s not what we find is good practice," Tisdale says. 

Radecki says we ask too much of young kids already.

"We’re just trying to build some confidence so that they can learn," she says, "not make it so stressful." 


Kindergarten teacher Andrea Burkholder looks on as a student practices writing a lowercase f.
Credit Morgan Springer

This is the third year Central Grade School kindergarteners have been doing movement lab, and so far it seems to be working. Since the lab started, reading scores have grown by nearly 20 percent on a national test, the NWEA.

Radecki says the benefits go well beyond improved reading scores.

"Confidence, less behavioral referrals … building endurance, building stamina," says Radecki, listing off the benefits. "Building social skills with peers. They’re becoming independent."

TCAPS got $42,000 in grants from Munson Healthcare and the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to run the movement lab this year. Principal Tisdale says they hope to keep the program going.

"The next step is to look at how can this be sustainable beyond a grant," he says.

Tisdale says movement lab could help kids in all grades, not just kindergarteners and first graders.