Exercising Attention

It’s the usual afterschool chaos in my house. Classic rock plays loudly and all three kids are gyrating in an impromptu dance party. They jump and twirl, singing along with the songs. Twenty minutes later, I turn down the volume and they settle in to do their homework. Heads bent over books and keyboards, they’re laser focused on learning.

It seems counterintuitive. How can vigorous movement promote focused attention? Yet a new study confirms that the more intense the exercise, the greater children’s attention afterward. It seems exercise isn’t just good for physical fitness. It’s also good for mindfulness.

What’s especially good news is that children who have trouble keeping still are the ones who seemed to benefit the most from periods of high-intensity movement. Brisk activities serve as a ‘brain break’ for all kids and give those who are ‘high energy’ a physical outlet. And even lower intensity movements like walking or stretching improve focus.

To encourage mindfulness and help children stay focused while learning spiritual concepts and exercises, try some of these movement activities before getting started.

Yoga Flow. Put together a set of yoga poses and move through them at low, medium, or high speed, whichever makes sense for children’s energy levels. A low-intensity workout might focus on a few simple stretching poses, like cat, cow, and tree, whereas a high-intensity session might flow from standing poses to ones lying down and back up again.

Dance for Joy. Create a playlist of fast dance songs and invite children to move their bodies. Mix in oldies like Shout (Isley Brothers), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Marvin Gaye) and Jump (Van Halen), as well as contemporary tunes like Dynamite (BTS), Shake It Off (Taylor Swift), Rain on Me (Ariana Grande & Lady Gaga), and Can’t Stop the Feeling (Justin Timberlake).

Fast Forward. Start a stretching and breathing exercise at regular speed and then – on your signals – encourage children to speed up the activity in increments (twice as fast, then 3 times, then 4 times). For example, stand with feet apart and arms hanging. Breathe in, sweeping arms slowly upward in a circle, then breathe out and lower arms. Repeat, getting faster and faster, then slow down again.

Take a Walk. Set off at a brisk pace together and do laps around the room, playground, yard, or block. Add in fancy steps (tippy toes, giant leaps, or hopscotch jumps) if children want to jazz up the activity. You might even play Follow the Leader, so long as everyone keeps moving while they imitate the actions of whoever’s turn it is to lead.

Sprint Tag. With a high energy group of kids, set up teams of two or more and mark a spot about 20 yards away from a starting line. When you say ‘go’, one child from each team runs to the marked spot and then returns, tagging the next child in line. Encourage children to see how many laps they can complete in a set amount of time (3-5 minutes). To up the challenge, add an activity that children must complete at the turnaround point, such as one or more standing yoga poses.

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