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School’s Back -- Get a Move On

September 2, 2018

What happens from the moment our kids get on the school bus to the minute they step off is a capacious list of events that goes far beyond academics. And it’s those very things that are helping to fuel a kid’s desire to learn.

Robert, a fledgling third-grader, stacks a palette of Play-Doh containers, nesting the yellow plastic bases atop colorful lids until it rises well above his head. He nudges the base of the tower with two fingers. Under the force it begins to slide across the kitchen table. Soon the top bobbles like the head of a dancing cobra, and the whole structure teeters and spills. He laughs.

Gathering them up, he creates a new stacking pattern based on bringing two lids together to form the first building block, repeating the process. Again he watches with the calculating eye of an 8-year-old to see how each action causes a certain reaction.

Going back to school is an action that happens for families in New England every year around Labor Day. And the way in which parents, teachers and caregivers react can help students to see that learning is actually a part of life that happens inside and outside of school, and that it’s actually really cool.

So, facilitating ways to make going back to school a positive experience for everyone helps kids get the best shake at learning, and as much as we are sad to see summer coming to an end, the new beginning is all about shaking and moving.

My daughter says that being organized is what helps most, from getting the required school supplies to laying out clothes the night before to preparing snacks and lunches ahead of time. Doing all of those things oils the machine to make the process of moving from house to school bus happen more smoothly. And when things are where she can put her hands on them, everyone’s happier. This leaves extra time for connecting with her kids, talking about feelings or watching a big grasshopper move before the bus pulls up.

Of course, there are going to be some mornings when you run late because you suddenly remember at the last minute that your child, who doesn’t like turkey, needs a note alerting the teacher about the peanut-butter sandwich in his lunchbox.

And for kids, it’s all the non-academic stuff that happens between lessons and assignments that can make or break learning when it comes to motivation. For instance, when I asked Robert what he likes best about going back to school, he takes a moment to think. A light bulb goes off, and he doesn’t mince words. “Gym.” I ask why gym is his favorite part of the school day, and he quickly responds, “Because I get to move my body.”

Moving the body is important to learning. When we move, the blood flows to the brain, and we can think more clearly. But don’t take my anecdote as the only evidence. Education Week cites a 2011 study at Duke University that focuses on the ability of students to concentrate as a predictor for academic success. So there’s good reason for Robert choosing gym as a key part of his school day.

I hope teachers everywhere incorporate small periods of fun movement into their schedules over and above the allotted physical education and recess that is scheduled for students. As part of the academic drill in my college classrooms, I make room for students to get out from behind their desks. Stretching, breathing, learning a goofy dance step, reinvigorates not only our brains and bodies but our spirits. Attitudes. Perspectives. These are powerful tools when it comes to hitting the books.

Robert says his first week back to school has gone well, though his least favorite part is taking the bus home and not getting to see as many of his friends who sometimes stay at extended day because their parents are at work.

Our grandson, Steven, who started kindergarten this week, came home the first day and told his mother, “Mom, I didn’t go to the principal’s office!” Hey, you gotta start somewhere, right? He was disappointed when his older brother got on the bus the next day without him. He had to stay home as part of the calendar for kindergartners.

For Steven, it’s all about making social connections, another key part of learning. And when kids associate school with making new and healthy relationships with their peers and their teachers, the groundwork for learning can happen more effectively, making learning a positive and long-lasting activity.

I ask Steven what he likes least about school, and he immediately quips, “Going back home!” If he had it his way, he’d camp out with his classmates 24/7.

On our daughter’s refrigerator, a couple of Robert’s spelling tests from the end of second grade are still displayed. “Homework is the first thing they do,” she says about her boys coming off the bus at the end of the school day. “I usually make them a snack when they get home. If it’s a nice day, we play outside first. We don’t want to be doing homework at 8:30 at night.”

That’s the time to wind down after supper, get washed up and settle in with a story. Then it’s the waking LED lights of the electronic devices stowed downstairs away from the bedrooms so they can get a good night’s rest. Creating routines like this promote good habits for learning.

The thing is, parents sow the attitudes that enrich their child’s learning, whether at the breakfast and dinner table or when driving kids to practices, rehearsals or play dates, and, finally, when tucking them in at night. The language parents use can help to plant seeds that will foster positive growth for all of the integral learning that takes place from textbook to downtime. Approaching the classroom as a wonderful and challenging place to explore knowledge and encourage curiosity will encourage a child’s healthy development. Associating school as so much more than a place to follow rules and make academic grades is one way to keep that spirit of learning strong for kids. Going back to school is an opportunity to reinvigorate our minds and bodies, make new friends and strengthen connections with old ones, and foster a desire to further understand how the world works with us working in it.

Here’s to learning: students, parents and teachers all!

Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about writing, learning and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ bonniejtoomey. Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com .

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