Exercise is making our kids smarter. That’s what is being proven within the walls of Traverse City Area Public Schools, where Movement Labs are leveraging the benefits of exercise to dramatically improve students’ reading skills.

Movement is “fertilizer for the brain,” says physical education advocate Patti Tibaldi, quoting author John Ratey, as she describes the link to exercise and brain patterning. And the “fertilizer” initiatives for Traverse City elementary students are having phenomenal results.

When the action-based learning labs first began in Central Grade School kindergarten classes, “scores were the best [the school] ever had—for reading scores and fitness scores,” Patti says. “The improvement was off the charts.” Ninety percent of the children were at or above grade-appropriate reading level.

Thanks to a recent Michigan Health Endowment Fund and Munson Healthcare grant for $42,000, the Movement Labs are continuing to help students. First graders have joined the program at Central Grade School, as have kindergarteners at Cherry Knoll Elementary.

The Movement Labs consist of a special 30-minute physical education class immediately followed by a reading course, three days a week. The physical education component concentrates on balance, coordination and patterning with movements like jumping rope, rhythming hand games, crawling and hopping from one place to another.

“Reading is patterns,” Patti says. “Jump rope, rhythm, balance—they have a lot to do with your ability to learn patterns.”

A TCAPS trip to Naperville, Illinois inspired staff to start the Movement Labs. TCAPS representatives observed the school district’s physical education program, which includes mandatory physical education for kindergarten through 12th grade. Naperville conducted a study of borderline-reading high school students—having them participate in pattern-based physical education courses followed by reading courses. Over a semester’s time, reading scores went up over a grade and a half in the test group, which far outpaced students in the control group.

“We had been doing things at TCAPS with nutrition and physical education,” Patti says, such as adding an additional day of physical education each week for kindergarten through second-grade students.

In addition to Movement Labs three days a week and the traditional one-day-a-week physical education course, the newly added day of physical education makes a rare, but important, full week of physical education, Patti says.

“I think we lose focus so much because we’re so worried about their grades,” Patti says. “I think it’s so important that we recognize the basic skills it takes to be healthy. It’s the greatest gift we can give our kids. And our community is really trying together [in this initiative], and this is a real example of that kind of collaboration.”

A proven example of past success in educating kids about health importance, Patti mentions, is that of smoking. “When they started in schools saying smoking is bad for you, what happened? It came home,” she says. “I think it’s the same thing. If we can start at the lowest level and teach kids healthy habits, it’s a lifetime decision you make. Look at how the rates of smoking have lowered.”

“It shows the power of community and collaborating.”

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