How to Incorporate Physical Activity into the School Day

Hey Y’all!

After that doozy of a blog post last week, I decided to move strategies on how to begin incorporating physical activity to today’s blog to make it easier to absorb and give y’all time to reflect on it. There are so many ways to incorporate physical activity in the classroom whether through movement breaks between lessons, activities, or classrooms or by building the physical activity/movement into the lesson itself. However, many teachers I work with report that often the hardest part is knowing where to start and just getting started. I’m here to help with that!

boy learn through play and physical activity
A Three Part Approach

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in collaboration with other national agencies have recommended a 3 part approach grounded in evidence to assist schools in incorporating classroom physical activity (don’t worry I’ll also provide the links below). This approach spans all the way from the district level to the classroom level. For a deeper, more detailed look into this 3 part approach visit the links at the bottom of the post!

The Buy In

Category 1 is all about building buy-in and providing the training & education for classroom physical activity. Here are the steps:

  1. Identify who to engage and how they should be involved in planning classroom physical activity.
    • Who: school administrators, PE teachers, physical activity champions & leaders, instructional coaches, classroom teachers, students, parents, community members & organizations, and college & universities
    • How will these individuals be involved? Assess interest to see who wants to be involved & in what respect! Schools may also have a physical activity champion or leader (often the PE teacher but doesn’t have to be) who can lead the development of the Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program.
  2. Identify policies and practices involving classroom physical activity that already exist.
    • Policies may already exist at the school, district, or state levels! Districts that partake in meal programs like the National School Lunch Program MUST HAVE local wellness policies which include physical activity goals. So check those out!
    • Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program – does the school have one and does it include classroom physical activity?
  3. Provide the necessary training on classroom physical activity.
    • Research shows that teachers who have received training & education on classroom physical activity incorporate it more often leading to higher levels of physical activity per week for their students versus those students taught by teachers without this education/training (Ward 2011).
    • Promote physical activity in the classroom by incorporating it into staff meetings or other professional development meetings for teachers to try it & see the effects themselves. 
    • PE teachers or school-based physical therapists can assist in providing examples or strategies for classroom based physical activity.
    • There are also often district level staff, professionals from universities or state agencies who can provide resources or training. 

Inside the Classroom

kids learn through physical activity in classroom

Category 2 emphasizes how to develop classroom environments that support physical activity. Here are the steps:

  1. Identify which approaches to utilize for classroom physical activity. The 2 primary approaches:
    • Physical activity integrated into planned academic instruction.
    • Physical activity outside of planned academic instruction.
  2. Identify the most appropriate times and opportunities for classroom physical activity.
    • Generally assess which approaches for classroom physical activity works best for the class.
    • Consider what the classroom needs are and the way students respond (or will respond) depending on time of day & preceding/following events (i.e. promoting physical activity before a test, building physical activity into a complex lesson for improved engagement & attention, gentle physical activity after lunch such as yoga or gentle movement for relaxation/winding down, etc.).
    • Ideally, seek classroom physical activity that’s simple & easy to organize, requires minimal preparation, and can be performed anywhere & anytime.
  3. Identify what you’ll need such as materials, resources, and potentially technology.
    • Physical activity does not necessarily need any equipment.
    • Classrooms may already have materials such as exercise balls, dice, timers, cones, exercise cards, yoga mats, learning mats, etc. which can be utilized or equipment/supplies can be borrowed from the PE program.
    • If supplies or materials are limited, come up with a rotating schedule for use to ensure every classroom gets a turn.
  4. Identify ways to optimize & utilize classroom space for classroom physical activity.
    • Determine activities that best fit the space of the classroom (if necessary physical activity can be done at a student’s desk). 
    • Performing activities outside/utilizing outdoor space can also be an option.
  5. Set and communicate safety & behavioral expectations with your students regarding classroom physical activity.
    • The school’s code of conduct can be used.
    • It also may be helpful for teachers to discuss these expectations beforehand (i.e. respectful of different levels of ability, body awareness (how close they are to other students or objects), and giving their best effort).
    • PE teachers or school-based PTs can help provide guidance on variations or modifications of activities to ensure inclusion of all students. 

Monitor Results and Share the Data!

Category 3 covers how to collect & share information about classroom physical activity experiences. Here are the steps:

  1. Collect info on classroom physical activity.
    • Collect info on the amount of time required to prepare for activity.
    • Collect info on students’ level of interest & enjoyment in activity.
    • Collect info on length of activity.
    • Track what activity was performed & the effect on student behavior (i.e. spacing out, excessive talking, fidgeting, etc.), grades & test scores, and overall engagement/enjoyment level. 
    • You can also have your students keep a daily planner in which they track their activities. 
  2. Collect info on ease of implementation.
  3. Share what you learned (successes and challenges).
    1. Sharing what you learned may promote increased buy-in by other teachers & administrators. 
    2. Helps shape future planning and guides professional development needs. 

Ultimately, buy-in as well as communication and collaboration are so important to the overall success of implementing classroom based physical activity. Whether you’re a teacher, a school administrator, a parent/caregiver, a student, a therapist (PT, OT, ST), etc. your role in this process is so important and I encourage you to continue seeking out this information! I hope this blog post helps and acts as a jumping off point for you as you incorporate physical activity in the classroom. Remember these changes and implementations (or really anything in life lol) work best when we take baby steps; they also may require some trial & error. Check back in next week for specific examples of classroom physical activities!

Link to CDC documents

See y’all next week!


Catherine C. Skelton, PT, DPT

Pediatric Physical Therapist


Ward D. School Policies on Physical Education and Physical Activity. A Research Synthesis. Princeton, NJ: Active Living Research; 2011.

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