Engaging Students from the First Minutes of the Day.


About this time last year, our K-7 school was having difficult discussions about ways to engage students better, and sooner in the day.  We were particularly concerned about those students who were so disengaged, that they wouldn’t arrive on time. Too many were arriving 15, 30, even 60 minutes late almost every day.  Our solution to the problem was to make the first minutes of the day some of the most fun.

As a staff we committed to doing 15-30 minutes of Daily Physical Activity (DPA) first thing in the morning.  But we also changed the look of DPA.  Too often we sent kids for a run and called it DPA, and many kids hated it.  They walked, they hid, they complained and there was little to no value for most.  It was one more reason not to come to school.  In the reimagined version, our administrators paired up similar grade classes and scheduled them one of five locations in the school that we would rotate through each day of the week. Teachers committed to adding variety to the activities and making them fun–to great success!

In the end, there are still some students who continue to arrive late, and we may never reach all of them, but we have noticed better attendance in general.  Additional benefits we’ve seen include a greater connection with students as this time allows for us to have a brief conversation with many students outside the academic setting.  General fitness levels are increasing, as is the sense of community because kids spend the time playing together, laughing together and talking.  All too often that is lacking in their lives.  Finally, having that chance to decompress from the stresses that they may be leaving at home, connect with an adult and expend some physical energy is translating to greater self regulation in the classroom.  Kids return from DPA ready to apply their minds, now that they have satisfied their bodies.

Here’s a look at what my grade partner and I do each week:

Day: Monday Location: Upper Covered Patio and Playground
We use the playground equipment to do timed fitness circuits.  Stations often include running low hurdles, step ups, pull ups, planking, tricep dips, push ups and running a lap of the building. Over time, enthusiasm for this has waned and we need to consider ways to remotivate.  One successful strategy is to make it an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) workout.  Last week I had students run one lap, do 20 jumping jacks, 20 step ups, 20 tricep dips, and 20 pull ups.  They had 15 minutes to do as many as possible and count their reps for points.  The goal is to improve on the number for next week.  I’ve never seen them sweat so much.  This strategy is a keeper.

Day: Tuesday Location Cement Basketball Court
We use the court to run relays that build coordination. The classes are divided into four groups to get as many kids moving at once in this small space. The relays might include:

  • sprints
  • jogging backward
  • forward lines (run out to the second line, back to the first one, out to the end line, and back to the beginning.
  • backward lines (as above but students run backward as they run out, forward as they return.
  • crossovers (aka grapevines)
  • side gallops
  • hopping, on one foot or two
  • walking lunges

To step up the level of fitness, sometimes we’ll have the next person in line hold a plank or do pushups while they wait.

Day: Wednesday Location: Lower Covered Patio
This is a bit of a games day.  Four square is popular with our students and this location has two courts that students use for four square. We also bring out tennis balls to play pass, skipping ropes, and crank up some music.  Some of the students are really into volleyball and will pass a set or pass a volleyball around in a circle during this time too.  Wednesday’s DPA is a class favorite because it offers the most free play with a little bit of structure to get it going.  It also offers the most opportunity to chat with students while just passing a ball back and forth, or engaging in a four square game with them.  This is the day that DPA often extends well beyond 30 minutes because we see so much value in kids being kids and playing.

Day: Thursday Location: Lower Playground/Turf Fields
The schedule says provides an option on Thursday to use the lower playground, or make the 10 minute walk to the the local turf fields.  We’ve been using the turf fields for more sustained running.  For about 12 minutes of running, I call out lap times as students make their way around the fields.  Some other classes use the fields for more relays.

Day: Friday Location: Gym
Friday is an extra special fun day because we’re in the gym with music pumping again.  We do extra silly relays, and relays using gym equipment here.  In addition to many of the same relays we do on Tuesdays, we spice things up by having students do wheelbarrow races, run in partners inside a hula hoop, have to hold beanbags head-to-head with a partner, or do a somersault on a mat as they run to the other end of the gym.  Crab walks, leap frog, and bear walks are easier on the gym floor than the cement outside.  One of the class’ favourites is to roll a hula hoop to the other end of the gym and back, but if a student can dive through it without knocking it over, no other members have to run.  As my grade partner and I find new ways to get creative and come up with sillier and sillier relays, the students respond in kind with good sportsmanship and lots of laughs.  Students are able to laugh with each other instead of at each other and the community really grows in a positive way.

A note on rainy days:
If you know anything about the west coast of British Columbia, you know the the weather is predictably unpredictable and we get a lot of rain.  For this reason, the school field was never a scheduled location as it can get quite muddy, though many of our classes chose to do activities there during better weather. 500 Up is one of my favorites requiring little equipment to have lots of fun on the field.  Track and field activities might also happen on the field.  Our school is also fortunate to have a number of covered patios and walkways.  On rainy days, we can still go outside under a patio and play a game of Simon Says that involves lots of fitness and yoga poses.  Students getting caught not doing what Simon says have to run out in the rain around a nearby tree.  The covered walkways are supported by poles that we use too.  Running around the building in small groups at the sound of a whistle, students run under the walkway in one direction and then slalom through the poles on the way back to stay out of the way of the next group.  Blowing a whistle helps to spread out the groups and keep a safe distance.

Making a school-wide effort to commit to DPA has had noticeable results in our school this year and has addressed some of the concerns that we set out to.  To our surprise the rewards have been even greater than expected from that conversation a year ago.  Is it time for your school to have the same discussion? Maybe it’s just you and one or two other teachers that commit to trying it. What could you lose? We gained attendance, engagement, fitness, fun and community.