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Erasing the line between learning and play

Kristen B. Morales

November 8, 2017

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Everyone needs to take a break during the day, especially the bundles of energy that are children.

But what if that energy release can also help reinforce what's being learned in the classroom? After studying the links between physical activity and cognition for decades, College of Education professors Phillip Tomporowski and Bryan McCullick of the Department of Kinesiology are putting this innovative research into practice through an after-school program called PAL, or Physical Activity and Learning.

Now beginning its fourth year, PAL is making strides with about 60 children in two local schools. "The program focuses specifically on elementary school students who struggle academically in math and reading, fail to engage in adequate physical activity, and live in economically disadvantaged homes," says Tomporowski. "The program is designed to be one that interfaces with the school and supplements what they are already doing in the classroom."

Faculty from the College's Department of Educational Psychology, Marty Carr (recently deceased) and Paula Schwanenflugel, were also instrumental in creating the research-based curriculum, and the PAL team also includes faculty from the UGA College of Public Health. The program begins with a 45-minute physical activity that challenges students while also teaching them to control behaviors, actions, or thoughts. Then, the students take part in lessons in reading and mathematics.

This format also counters the traditional notion that children should study first, then play. "Our data suggests if you play first, then teach, they will learn better," adds Tomporowski.

The program has been embraced by the two elementary schools it serves and recently received a 2017 Impact Award from the school district—an honor that recognizes "significant, lasting, and ongoing contributions" to students. Last year, Tomporowski also received UGA's Engaged Scholar Award for his work with the program.

So far, teachers and school administrators are impressed. But the lessons learned in PAL will hopefully translate beyond the classroom, Tomporowski says.

"I can teach students in a classroom setting," he says. "But the real test is whether or not they can take that information and use it in the real world."

Related links: Department of Kinesiology