Fitness Fun: Incorporating Fitness into the Classroom
A recent study conducted at the University of Illinois linked cardio respiratory fitness in 48 children ages 9-10 with higher functioning in math tests. While this is a small sample size, it demonstrates something that continues to stand out as important; if we want to improve academic performance, we have to implement regular physical activity for all students. Research continues to reinforce what we find anecdotally, that moving better and more often promotes greater skill development in other areas.
Despite my professional (and personal) bias, it seems that American society has largely dismissed the compartmentalization approach to children and teens. “This one is more of a bookworm; this one more a jock” are statements that have steadily disappeared from regular parent conversations. We consider young people as being able to focus on a variety of different academic, vocational, and avocational areas.
If we can agree that physical fitness and regular activity are important (as is my usual reader agreement, should this not be the case please just stop reading now), we need to find ways to integrate them regularly and effectively, meaning that each student has access to an appropriate movement program.
Let’s have a nice one-way discussion about appropriate exercise selection. Exercise activities in the classroom are only beneficial if students can actually perform them. With regard to the autism and special needs populations, we often have students who are resistant to new activities, particularly those of a physical nature. Exercise choice, providing appropriate instruction (concise language, visual prompts, physical guidance), and reinforcement are the keys to not only making exercise tolerable (and eventually fun), but providing real improvements in physical functioning.
As I was preparing to put together a strategy for educators (and for parents to email to educators) on incorporating fitness into the classroom, it occurred to me that I had already done so in Autism Fitness in MY Classroom, an E-book I realized I wrote last year that is available on AutismFitness.com. Exclusively for you Parenting Special Needs Magazine readers, below is an excerpt from Autism Fitness in MY Classroom:
I) How to Program in a Classroom or Adaptive PE Setting!
In a classroom, it may be challenging to get a group moving, let alone develop individual programs. So how do we start? Where do we start? I hope I’ve covered the many reasons why we start in the previous sections. Implementing group fitness programs for students with ASD is not the easiest of endeavors, but using the right combination of activities, teaching cues, and reinforcement will get you to a good place.
Program structure is pretty straightforward. There are two, and only two ways of doing this successfully:
1) Exercise Courses
2) Exercise Stations
Exercise courses are great for groups of students who have similar levels of ability. With exercise courses, several movement activities are performed in order. Each student completes all (depending on his/her level of motivation and cooperation) the activities and then comes back to the beginning area.
Exercise Stations may have a similar set-up as courses, except 1-2 students perform the activity at each station for a specific amount of time (usually 30 sec-2 minutes). Stations allow each participant more time with the particular exercise activity than courses.
The exercise at each station can also be regressed (made simpler) or progressed (made more challenging) based on the needs of the individual student. For example, if Chris can squat with the Sandbell, raise it overhead, and then slam it independently, he can perform that activity (squat, press, slam) at the Sandbell station. If Lisa cannot yet perform the overhead press, she may do the squat with the Sandbell without the press and slam, or have an instructor provide hands-on prompting to help her learn the skill.
Courses are great for activities that all students have already mastered, or can perform independently. Because they will be moving fairly quickly through each exercise, it is helpful that they already know how to perform the movement correctly to the best of their ability.
To sum it all up
Use Circuits When:
- There is a wide range of Physical, Adaptive, and Cognitive abilities within the group
- Introducing new exercise activities
- Incorporating socialization into the fitness session (2-3 students at each station)
Use Courses when:
- Enough staff is available to be at each station and/or when working with a higher functioning (Adaptive and Cognitive) group
- The course includes mastered or familiar exercise activities (those the students are already good at and have done before)
- You have a larger space to use for the program
Exercise Activities for Your Classroom Fitness Program
The exercises here can be utilized in a vast array of combinations. I usually start my group sessions with Dynamax ball push throws, and as my athletes progress we add overhead and scoop throws. I may also start with some animal-inspired movements including T-Rex stomps, Bear walks, short rabbit hops, and long frog hops. Each session, try to incorporate different ways to push, pull, locomote (getting from one place to another), and bend/squat.
In our Autism Fitness group sessions, which typically range from 45-55 minutes, we usually keep within six to eight total exercises or movements and change the order around several times. A typical daily session looks like this:
Warm up: Dynamax ball push throws among the group for 5-6 minutes, bear walks from one end of the room to the other 3-4 times.
Station Set A
- Squat to Dynamax ball – Double rope swings
- Sandbell two-hand overhead press
- Sandbell slam – Spot marker jumps
- Performed for 10-15 minutes total with athletes switching stations every 60-90 seconds Station Set B
- Squat to Dynamax ball with arms up or out
- Alternating rope swing – Sandbell overhead walk
- Dynamax ball frog hops – Low hurdle jumps
Notice that the movements in Set B are different variations of those in Set A. We want our students to become proficient and eventually master each exercise. Providing adequate opportunity to perform the movement pattern is essential to individual mastery. Individuals with autism and related developmental disabilities often need more time and practice to acquire physical skills. Variety is important for motivation, however consistency is necessary as well. The term “same but different” applies here.
Below is the Autism Fitness in MY Classroom Movement Menu. Pick a few of the exercises to begin with and observe how each student performs the movement. Do you need to intervene with a regression? Can they perform it with such strength and stability that a progression is in order?
A few notes about progressions and regressions
Regressing activities requires both a simpler version of the exercise and a prompt (usually physical but may simply be a visual modeling). For squats, I have all of my athletes “sit” to a Dynamax medicine ball. If they tend to pitch forward or their heels elevate off the ground, I may have them take a wider stance and hold on to either my hands or a very securely anchored fitness rope to provide additional stability. Once they develop the strength and stability to perform the squat without the rope, we can fade it out and begin progressing the exercise.
Additional regressions and progressions are provided with each activity in the Movement Menu below. There are also suggested regressions and progressions. Some regressions may just require a visual prompt, most often demonstrating the exercise for the student right before or as they perform it. Some students may require physical prompting/guidance to perform the movement pattern correctly.
Eric Chessen, M.S., is the Founder of Autism Fitness. An exercise physiologist with an extensive ABA background, Eric consults with families, educators, and fitness professionals around the world. Eric works with his athletes in the NY metro area and is the author of several E-books. Visit AutismFitness.com for more information.