New program helps Michigan kids maximize physical activity in the classroom

This article is part of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are stepping up to address health challenges. It is made possible thanks to funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

After two weeks of rain and indoor playtime, a little boy in Sharie Murray’s special education class at Birch Run Area Schools North Primary School approached her and said, “I’m sorry, Miss Murray. I can’t do it. I need a brain break. I’m falling asleep. It’s boring.” Instead of sternly telling him to go back to his seat, Murray woke the class up with a short burst of InPACT at school physical activity programming. In less than 10 minutes, students were back at work, feeling awake and focused after scrambling.

“Other years it was always ‘No. Sit down. Don’t do that.’ It gives them permission to get up, make a little more noise, jump up and get that energy out,” Murray says. “Through professional development and learning, the mindset of our teachers has exchange. We now understand that physical activity is an opportunity to prepare the brain for learning.”

Based on research conducted at the University of Michigan (UM) Childhood Disparities Research Lab and in elementary schools across Michigan, InPACT offers strategies to schools that provide 20 minutes of daily physical activity in the classroom. The acronym InPACT stands for “Interrupting Prolonged Sitting with Activity”. By integrating short periods of exercise into the school day, InPACT not only improves children’s physical health, but also their attention span, behavior, learning, social connections and emotional health.
Pupils at Birch Run North Elementary School take part in an InPACT physical activity break.
“If you have a child who is feeling good, who is focused, that will 100% translate to better results in that class and in terms of academic achievement and achievement,” says Rebecca Hasson, InPACT program director at the school and InPACT at home, a version of the program designed for students and families to use outside of school. “Health is not the primary goal teachers are concerned about. Teachers are paid to teach children how to learn, and that’s okay. But we also know that a healthy child learns better. By helping children to improve their physical activity, we know that this can help not only with their blood pressure and weight, but also with their self-esteem and confidence, which can also translate into improved school results.”​

Launch InPACT

The seeds of InPACT were planted in 2013, when professors of architecture from U.M. Taubman College reached out to Hasson, director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory, then associate professor of kinesiology and nutritional sciences at UM. Architecture teachers sought Hasson’s professional expertise in redesigning classrooms to promote physical activity as a way to combat childhood obesity. Building new schools to better support physical activity was not a financially viable option.

“[Architecture professors] went into their studios and started asking questions: “How tall are the kids? ‘How much space do they really need to do linear movements in this class?’ “How big are the elementary school classrooms in the state?” Hasson explains. “Then they developed these different floor plans that allow teachers to redesign their rooms to make them safe for travel, because one of the biggest barriers to classroom activity is space in the classroom.”

Hasson’s work with architects inspired her to design a new type of physical activity program that makes the most of the interior space of the classroom. With the help of Healthy Schools Project (a Michigan medical program that provides health education) and the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory, InPACT at school launched in 2018.

The InPACT team set out to shoot short videos that show teachers how children should exercise. They also incorporated videos from existing sources such as GoNoodle and Michigan Fitness Foundation Fitbits. Working with the UM School of Education, they incorporated classroom management strategies into the budding curriculum.
Pupils at Birch Run North Elementary School take part in an InPACT physical activity break.
“When you’re working with 30 or 35 kids, you have to have different procedures,” Hasson explains. “It was really about creating an environment of movement in this [classroom] space. We worked with the schools to make sure everyone could implement effectively.”

InPACT training has now been rolled out to schools across Michigan, including schools in the Birch Run area, Columbia Upper Elementary School in Brooklyn, Detroit Community Schools, Munger Elementary Middle School in Detroit, Estabrook Learning Center in Ypsilanti, and Jesse L. Anderson Elementary School in Trenton. An initial survey of the first schools where InPACT was introduced provided essential information to move the program forward. Because the initial group included schools located in low-, middle-, and high-income neighborhoods, the InPACT team was able to recognize and remove barriers in low-income schools, revamp the curriculum for these schools, and ensure equity. in opportunities for physical activity. for all students involved.

“Ultimately, we were able to do 20 minutes of physical activity in high, middle and low income schools, which was absolutely fantastic,” Hasson said. “We use physical activity to prepare the brain for learning. There’s a ton of research in the cognitive literature that explains how [students] actually have a much more active brain, especially in the areas of concentration and attention, after 20 minutes of activity. Kids just can’t sit still for hours and hours. These small, brief bursts of activity spread throughout the day help increase their blood flow, bring it back to the brain, and release different hormones that boost focus and attention.”

Birch Run to make a bigger InPACT

All 26 classrooms at North Elementary use InPACT every school day. Birch Run Area Superintendent of Schools Diane Martindale plans to expand InPACT to the district’s middle school next year.
Pupils at Birch Run North Elementary School take part in an InPACT physical activity break.
“It’s not just a brain break,” says Martindale. “It has actually led to a deeper engagement in student learning, a greater focus on students. Socio-emotional needs are being met and otherwise we would have just been successful. With InPACT, we have a more intentional approach to giving them that physical outlet they need to regroup, reset, and recommit to their learning.”

Sheri Bitterman, a second-grade teacher at North Elementary, agrees that the many three- to five-minute activity breaks throughout the day help her students focus better on their studies. She also enjoys the mindfulness activities of the InPACT program, which engage children and create a calm classroom environment after movement, recess or other stimulating circumstances.

“Some days, depending on what activity we’re doing, it pisses them off a bit more,” Bitterman says. “That’s when I follow up with a calming exercise – deep belly breathing, rainbow breath. They do that for a minute and it really calms them down and brings them back to focus.”

Murray agrees, noting that it helps to “read the room” to determine which InPACT program will be best for students.

“One Monday morning they come in and they’re super tired,” she says. “It’s important to incorporate that movement. But on Friday they’re all super geeky, all fired up and so hyper. Then we play a video that lets them do higher impact, more physical and faster moves. It it’s really about knowing your students, understanding what they need at the time.”

Another North Elementary second-grade teacher, Tracy Periard, also appreciates the positive social aspects of how the InPACT program engages more introverted students.

“During this setting, they’re in front of the class with five other kids they may have never spoken to in their lives, even though they’ve been in class with them all year,” Periard says. “Seeing them fully engaged gives them the opportunity to feel truly connected to a community. InPACT gives them that safe space to make those connections through physical activities. It has really helped them develop as a child. entirely.”

Merge home and school programs

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in 2020, Dr. Pamela Pugh, vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education, reached out to Hasson to request that the InPACT curriculum be adapted so parents could use it at home. home with their children. Using the same video format, InPACT at Home guides children through 20 minutes of daily physical activity developed by physical education teachers from across the state. Now that in-person school has returned, Hasson and her colleagues are working to merge the two programs so InPACT can have an even bigger impact.
Pupils at Birch Run North Elementary School take part in an InPACT physical activity break.
“We can get 20 minutes in class and hopefully about 20 minutes at home,” Hasson says. “If you couple that with physical education, recess, afternoon or weekend park visits, we can achieve our goal of ensuring that every child in the state of Michigan has the opportunity to meet the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] physical activity recommendations 60 minutes a day.”

Estelle Slootmaker is a writer specializing in journalism, book publishing, communications, poetry and children’s books. You can contact her at [email protected] or

Photos by Ashley Brown.

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