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Gateway Play: Why Gym Class is One of the Best Places to Teach STEAM

Recently the acronym STEM has expanded into STEAM to include art and even STREAM to include reading. Many teachers agree that learning concepts like science and engineering require students to tap into creativity and research. However, while many different instructors are starting to collaborate and create project-based learning plans that boost STEAM concepts, some physical education teachers are feeling left out.

Movement is a natural part of STEAM learning and can help students excel in their core subjects. Here are just a few ways PE teachers are teaching STEAM lessons and how this collaboration between the mind and body benefits students.

Other Disciplines Influence STEAM Learning

STEAM education focuses on project-based learning, or the idea that students use what they learn about science and math to engineer something amazing. At its core, STEAM learning requires multiple courses. Some teachers are looking to expand that concept by bringing the common core and STEAM education into other disciplines, like art, music, and PE.

“The ultimate goal of this learning strategy is to give students deep conceptual understandings of their topic,” Monica Fuglei writes for the Lessons Plan Page. “When students are not given various routes to understand a subject, they have an opportunity to wallow in complexity and really struggle with various topics and concepts.”

Cross-disciplinary learning reinforces lessons that were either missed by or had given trouble to some students. When they encounter that lesson again in the future, their positive experience in art or gym class can engage them in a subject instead of a negative experience in math class driving them away.

“If done well, the Common Core should inspire instructors to work in a much more collaborative and creative fashion across subject areas,” Madeleine Cummings writes at Slate.

Many teachers have started working together to bring lessons into each other’s classrooms. On one hand, this means PE teachers are getting to teach math and science concepts. However, it also means that activities and movement are becoming a greater part of classroom activities. The two work together to create a fun and engaging learning environment.

Boys playing soccer

PE Teachers Are Bringing STEAM to Gym Class

When some parents think about kids learning math or science in gym class, they worry their kids won’t have time to move because they’ll be so focused on solving problems. However, when creativity and games are added to the average gym class curriculum, students can learn STEAM concepts while still getting a physical workout and mental break.

“For a PE classroom attempting to include project based learning (PBL), keeping the challenge or task open ended is essential,” David Reeves writes for Grounds for Play. “This is done best by asking students to craft something new. Instead of simply quoting back knowledge, they will be involved in inquiry and innovation.”

Aaron Beighle is a physical educator and contributor to the Gopher Sport blog. He created a few examples on how STEAM and PE can easily be integrated to encourage creative thinking and problem solving in his gym classroom. Just a few ideas he had included:

  • Giving students a set of equipment and allowing them to make up games.
  • Presenting a problem and asking students to solve it with allotted gym equipment.
  • Collaborating with science teachers to discuss topics like momentum and force.
  • Using pedometers to create graphs and calculate body mass percentages.

Other teachers and organizations are working to combine STEAM lessons with the physical benefits of PE to engage students in the two courses.

Gym Teachers Get Involved in STEAM Day

The Make & Move Club blog shared how H. Ashton Marsh Elementary School incorporates STEAM in phys ed classes. All teachers were encouraged on STEAM day to incorporate problem-solving and creative-thinking exercises into their classes, and gym class was no exception.

When students got to PE, they played three specific STEAM games: Quick Draw, STEAM Race, and Tag & Learn, each of which got kids moving and made them think. The results were positive, as teachers reported hearing students cheering and laughing from down the hall.

Athletic Heroes Make STEAM Cool

The organization Connect a Million Minds is specifically dedicated to bringing STEAM discussions into sports by tapping into the celebrity of professional athletes:

“From the physics behind a perfect football spiral to the chemistry of a red hot race car, science, technology, engineering and math help power many of your favorite sports,” the group writes.

The organization creates videos of professional athletes and how STEAM topics relate to their success. This includes Victor Cruz discussing the physics of football and Sloane Stephens using math in tennis. This takes a topic that kids might already be interested in (sports) and applies classroom lessons in an engaging way.

Technology Engages Students in Physical Activity

Not all students are excited about gym class, but technology is able to engage kids that are less athletic or interested in other subjects.

David Bruce at the Erie-Times News showcased teachers at Parker Middle School in Edinboro, Pennsylvania who have noticed how technology has increased excitement to get up and run around.

When students don wrist pedometers, they suddenly seem to hustle more, chasing balls or playing in games. Other students started doing jumping jacks when they were waiting for their turn in order to keep moving. By teaching kids about the science of physical education, they can understand the importance of moving around and developing physical fitness habits that last a lifetime.

Technology and PE Are a Natural Fit

Mike Hanski highlighted other ways technology engages students in gym class and help makes them more physically fit. A few suggestions include:

  • Sharing YouTube tutorials to learn new stretching methods or practice techniques.
  • Encouraging students to create health video projects demonstrating what they learned.
  • Incorporating movement-based video games like Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect.

Hanski doesn’t mean that kids should spend their gym periods playing video games or watching YouTube videos, but he does encourage teachers to explore these channels as opportunities to connect with students and get them excited for class.

Many STEAM Lessons Incorporate Movement and Physical Activity

Heather Wolpert-Gawron at Edutopia discusses how drones can be incorporated into the curriculum. For PE, her suggestions include filming students as they run plays and letting them review their performance. Many of her suggestions combin movement with learning.

For math lessons, for example, students can draw a graph based on how far they can jump or throw a ball. For history or geography, teachers can get students moving around giant maps. All of these lessons incorporate STEAM concepts and can get students involved in learning during gym class.

Girls playing dodgeball

Movement Helps Children Learn

Incorporating STEAM into PE and then bringing PE back into STEAM isn’t as far-fetched as some parents might think. It has been proven that movement helps students learn and creates long-lasting connections to the subjects.

“When students use their bodies in the learning process, it can have a big effect, even if it seems silly or unconnected to the learning goal at hand,” Katrina Schwartz writes at KQED.

Schwartz shared an example of students who were asked to act out a word problem about a zookeeper feeding fish to animals. Compared to students who simply read the question, those who mimed a zookeeper performed better because they were more engaged in the material and understand exactly what the question asked.

“We fall into this trap that if kids are at their desks with their heads down and are silent and writing, we think they are learning,” Brian Gatens, superintendent of schools in Emerson, New Jersey tells the New York Times. “But what we have found is that the active time used to energize your brain makes all those still moments better.”

While many studies have reported varied results on the benefits of movement and PE in classroom performance, none have found that movement limits learning or harms the education process.

“There is no evidence that [exercise is] detrimental, which is striking if you consider that time spent by children in recess and physical education class is time diverted from academic study,” Dr. Gwen Dewar writes at Parenting Science. “The worst case scenario is that kids become more fit and healthy, while their academic achievement levels remain the same.”

Dr. Dewar does highlight one important caveat in the addition to movement into a child’s day: it must be fun. When kids are playing games or interacting with peers, they reap more benefits than those in forced or solitary exercise. Naturally, this sounds like another reason to incorporate problem-solving games and fun STEAM lessons into recess or the PE curriculum.

Kids playing during recess

PE Helps Students Perform In Other Subjects

School requires a certain amount of quiet learning, reading, and testing. However, by balancing the periods of focus with periods of movement, students can perform better when they do need to sit still.

“Regular movement has been shown to increase focus and retention in children and adults of all ages,” Nina Fiore writes at Creativity Post. “Movement also helps all children regulate (ie, adjust their energy), and it therefore has been shown to lower rates of behavioral problems such as fighting and bullying.”

This is why many STEAM activities that teachers have incorporated into their lesson plans involve deviating from traditional methods of learning and trying new activities or group projects.

Exercise Breaks with STEAM Activities Break Up Long Learning Days

Sara Lindberg experienced the challenges of traditional learning firsthand when her son started kindergarten. He was unable to focus and unable to sit still. Together, with his teachers and community experts, the school found a way for him to explore and engage in the classroom. Lindberg encourages teachers to incorporate more exercise breaks to give students opportunities to move around through PBL.

“Incorporating short exercise or stretch breaks into lessons can sharpen children’s focus on learning,” she writes. “Especially for younger students, dividing lessons into 8-20 minute ‘chunks’ punctuated with activities that involve movement keeps their attention on learning and helps make the content more memorable.”

When teachers balance learning with movement or activities, students are better able to engage with the material and remember it better.

Budget-Strapped Schools Can Still Get Kids Moving

Sonali Kohli shared the story of Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst, Massachusetts, which incorporated movement through a simple morning walk. When students arrive, they spend the 10 or 15 minutes before school starts walking around the building instead of sitting and talking in the classroom. Teachers are stationed around the building to monitor students, and the movement gets their blood flowing and readies their brains for the day.

If the school wanted to take exercise learning to the next level, they could create scavenger hunts around the building or ask students to solve word problems along the way.

PE is often one of the best parts of the day for students, and can be just as educational in terms of a school’s common core goals as any math or science lesson. The key is for teachers in all classes to get kids thinking about STEAM subjects in fun ways through movement.