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How the Mind Works Best

Karen Smail, exercise science professor

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In one classroom, kids bounced on a trampoline while performing arithmetic. Across the hall, students sprawled across mats, practicing yoga. Outside, they jumped rope and hula-hooped. Perhaps most exciting of all, the school’s newest classroom featured a climbing wall and exercise-inducing video games, including the Nintendo Wii and Dance Dance Revolution.

At a school like this, who’d ever want to stay home sick?

The school is Julian Mitchell Elementary in downtown Charleston, and its mission is to fuse learning with physical activity. Playing a critical role in this pilot program is exercise science professor Karen Smail, who is researching the impact of action-based learning at the school. Mitchell Elementary’s unorthodox combination of exercise and academics was in part prompted by a fitness study of Charleston County students conducted by Smail and three other College professors. The study’s results were dismaying: 33 percent of Charleston County students were obese or at risk of obesity. In the county’s poorest schools, the number was even worse: 49 percent.

To improve the student’s health, as well as boost their academic performance, Smail helped devise kinesthetic learning activities. Smail believed the bulk of the underperforming students would absorb knowledge better through physical action than by sitting in a desk for long stretches of time. She’s following the lead of national advocates, citing the positive influence of movement in learning. Smail says after seeing years of discouraging test results and fitness levels at Charleston schools, it was clear the status quo wasn’t working.

“Education,” Smail says, “had forgotten how the brain works.”

Walk with Smail through Mitchell Elementary, and you get a window into just how the brain works. In one corner of a classroom, students juggle scarves, continually concentrating on the fabric they must catch. Many children, Smail says, tend to read by only looking at a word’s first letter and guessing at what word it might be. Staring at falling scarves reinforces the importance of keeping one’s eyes on the full object. Against a wall, students rolled on scooter boards and parked themselves in outlines of different shapes on the floor. A school administrator comments that students are shown to learn better the lower they are to the ground.

Judging by the excitement in the classroom, students love the activities. “I practice the adding and don’t worry about the jumping,” notes 8-year-old Tanaya, fresh from jumping on a trampoline and doing the arithmetic pasted on a cabinet.

“You get to study math facts,” says 9-year-old Oddessey. “When you study math facts you get to know better in the classroom.”

Smails’ activities are part of a broad effort at Mitchell Elementary to promote better health and learning. Between the action-based learning lab and a more traditional physical education class, students at Mitchell Elementary enjoy 150 minutes of physical activity a week. Compare that with the 60 minutes other Charleston County students receive.

“It’s been the coolest thing,” says physical education teacher Lindsay Beck. “People don’t have P.E. every day. It’s just unheard of.”

Each week, a doctor visits the school and conducts a free health clinic. He’s able to write prescriptions on the spot. The school nurse, who happens to be married to the doctor, conducts “Fresh Fridays,” and showcases one fruit or vegetable each week, exposing children to new, healthy foods with exotic flavors. The nurse paid for the food for one year before Whole Foods became a sponsor of her efforts. Now she’s aiming for grant money from the USDA to continue the program.

“It all comes down to this: A sick child cannot learn,” says the nurse, Glennis Randazzo, who was also instrumental in raising nearly $30,000 for Mitchell’s new classroom with the climbing walls and Nintendo Wiis.

Smail is ecstatic about the room’s opening, and points to a study she just finished that shows no difference in fitness levels between children who used the Nintendo Wii’s games and students who took aerobics classes three times a week.

It’s too early to tell how much improvement, if any, students will demonstrate in their fitness and academic testing, but Smail and others at the school say the anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly positive.

Now that Smail has helped get the ball rolling at Mitchell, it’s time for her to analyze the data and write research papers. “If we keep this to ourselves,” she says, “nobody else can model themselves after us.”

Meanwhile, children have a blast at Mitchell Elementary, studying and exercising all at once.

As Dave Spurlock, director of physical education and health for the Charleston County School District, says, “God forbid we would make learning fun.”