Walking Classroom Tones Bodies and Builds Brainpower

Walking Classroom 056Armed with head phones and audio players, the fifth grade students at Lake Sybelia Elementary School soak up knowledge right along with fresh air and sunshine as they stride single-file across campus three days a week.

They’re also toning their bodies as they learn about poetry, Gettysburg, and Greek and Latin roots.

The students and their teacher, Susan Maddox, are participants in an innovative program called The Walking Classroom (TWC) designed to help kids pack more exercise into the school day without cutting into instructional time.

Just five years old, the nationally-recognized program is the brainchild of Laura Fenn, a former fifth grade teacher in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Concerned about a reduction in PE time for students, she obtained a grant, bought MP3 players, recorded lessons on them, and launched the Walking Classroom which has been blossoming ever since.

The program is now in more than 457 classrooms in 46 states. It is in 43 classrooms in Florida, but Lake Sybelia one of few schools in Central Florida using it.

Lake Sybelia launched its program earlier this school year with the support of a $5,500 grant from the Winter Park Health Foundation (WPHF). The grant provides for equipment and materials for 25 fourth graders and 25 fifth graders. There also are 100 extra headsets to allow sharing with other classrooms and for use in after school programs.

If successful, the WPHF hopes to expand the program to other local schools in Winter Park, Maitland and Eatonville.

The headsets are pre-loaded with approximately 90 educational podcasts covering topics aligned with state language arts standards. They range from John Muir and Daniel Boone to prepositions, the Trail of Tears and the ocean floor. The material is written by teachers, but recorded by students and teachers to add to the appeal.

In addition, each podcast opens with a brief health message.

Students listen to the podcasts as they take a brisk 15-20 minute walk on or near the school campus three times a week.

The programs are being used by students in third to 8th grades and within special student populations in high school around the country. They are meant to be supplemental, said Ms. Fenn, to either front load a concept or fill a gap. The program is not meant to serve as a replacement for PE or recess.

She also said it has been successfully used in after school programs.

In addition to providing exercise and education, the program capitalizes on the link between exercise and cognitive function, and it can help teachers meet the needs of students with conditions such as ADHD which require alternative learning approaches.

Even though it’s too early to measure the impact of the program on students, Ms. Maddox, who also is the school’s Healthy School Team Leader, says, “I love the program because my students get exposure to a wide variety of content area knowledge.  All of this knowledge is incorporated into lessons which also involve technology and physical activity.  It’s a win-win situation.  Plus, we all love it.  Even I am getting more movement into my day than I would have otherwise.”

In addition, the healthy messages are coming through. “I know students are more aware of the importance of healthy eating and physical activity. They mention it frequently,” she said.

Participating teachers from across the country also responded positively to a survey by The Walking Classroom:

  • 99% said they enjoy doing TWC with their students
  • 98% said the program helps meet the needs of students with different learning styles
  • 97% said their students are in better moods after participating in TWC
  • 94% said their students are more engaged in class discussions after TWC lessons
  • 87% say their students are better behaved after a TWC lesson
  • 84% say they noticed an increase in health awareness and healthy choices in their students since starting TWC.

And the students love the program too. After a recent walk, one of Ms. Maddox’s students explained, “It is really great because we get exercise, and we get our blood pumping to our brain and we learn better.” Said another, “It’s just a lot of fun!”