Archive for April, 2016

Can Exercise Help Students to Excel Academically?

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016


Although we all know that physical activity is an essential factor in lowering the risk of child obesity, and improving physical fitness, new research is proving that a fit body, can equal a fit mind. In other words, ensuring your kids stay active could be the first investment you make in their college fund.

Findings from the realms of education and biology research hint that regular exercise creates numerous benefits for the brain. Not only can regular workouts in the school gym or on the playground improve learning capacity, attention span, and memory, but it also works to reduce stress, and even combat the effects of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. In short, keeping your kids active could make them smarter.

The reason for this is that learning functions and memory retention are functions in the brain that rely on the growth and nourishment of brain cells, and exercise creates the best environment for that process to occur.

It All Adds Up: Exercise and Math

A recent study suggests that there may be a link between regular participation in physical education, and the mathematics scores that children achieve on standardized tests. The details of the study indicate a correlation between the amount of time students spent taking part in physical activity at school, and the scores they achieved during math-based exams. But the scientifically-backed connections don’t stop here. In fact, various pieces of research over the years have been able to point to the obvious interaction between physical health, and brain function.

The study worked by dividing the elementary schools of the city into separate groups according to level of physical education and exercise opportunities provided to students. At the same time, the researchers examined the recorded math scores for each student within those groups, allowing them to see a connection between both factors. The results showed that the schools offering the highest opportunity for exercise (151 minutes average) often posted higher math scores. In comparison, schools offering an average of 29 minutes of activity showed a lower proficiency rate.

Why the Research Makes Sense

While other studies have shown that academic performance is influenced by various factors, including socioeconomic status and parental involvement, a growing body of evidence has begun to reveal that active children often have a stronger performance in school, particularly in regards to mathematics and reading. The reason for this is simple – physical activity promotes positive mental health, reduces the likelihood of developing risk factors for chronic disease, and helps to build strong muscles, but it also affects academic achievement by enhancing concentration and improving classroom behavior. In fact, certain pieces of research have even suggested that reducing physical education exposure in schools could hinder the academic performance of developing children.

Although researchers aren’t entirely sure at this time what aspects of exercise contribute to better cognitive function, they are learning that it does physically benefit the brain – just as it benefits any other muscle in the human body. After all, increased aerobic exercise helps blood to pump throughout the body, delivering nutrients to organs and muscles. More blood means more oxygen, and therefore, nourished brain tissue.

At the same time, scientists have also suggested that regular exercise could be essential in helping the brain to produce more of a special protein known as the “brain-derived neurotrophic factor“. Otherwise known as “BDNF” this protein is an incredible source of nutrition for the brain, as it encourages the cells to grow, interconnect, and even communicate in brand new ways. Studies are even showing that exercise helps to play a part in the production of new brain cells, particularly in the “dentate gyrus” area, which is heavily responsible for the development of memory skills and learning.

Encouraging Educational Exercise

As more evidence continues to show the intertwining natures of exercise and brain function, it only makes sense that more groups are coming together to advocate the importance of after school activities and physical education in schools. Reports have already begun to suggest that all students should be getting at least sixty minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, and yet only about half of school-age children are meeting this guideline.

Fortunately, parents may be able to help supplement some of the exercise that kids aren’t getting at certain schools. By supporting physical education classes, classroom breaks and recess, then encouraging children to take part in after-school sports and activity, they can increase the chances that their child will come to think of exercise as a normal, habitual, and important part of life.

Teacher Appreciation Week

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

teacher appreciation week

By: BJ Williston, SPARK Trainer and Curriculum Development Consultant

As a former PE teacher I can tell you that I never really thought about Teacher Appreciation Week until it came, and then the wonderful things bestowed upon us typically overwhelmed me. The PTA would organize some sort of food to be brought in for breakfast or lunch and we all felt very special. It is certainly a treat to be catered to! But what I will always treasure are the handmade books using the prompt “What do you love about PE?” Their pictures were adorable and the things they wrote often made me cry. I have been out of the schools for a few years now, but I have kept and cherished those books.

This year, Teacher Appreciation Week is May 2nd to the 6th. There are SO many things you can do to show appreciation to the teachers in your life. Here are a few ideas ranging from costing you nothing but a few minutes to those costing a few bucks. Whatever you do, if it comes from the heart, the teachers in your life will love it!

  • Have your child write a thank you card telling the teacher why they appreciate them. Drawings are always loved. You should write one too. Teachers love hearing kind words from the parents of their students.
  • Provide donations of classroom supplies, many of which can be purchased on the School Specialty website. Many teachers spend their own money to cover supplies for things such as art projects, class pets, bulletin boards, and more. Anything you can help with will be appreciated.
  • Offer to bring some healthy snacks for the classroom. (E.g. Oranges, trail mix, veggies and dip, popcorn, cheese sticks, apples, berries, celery with cream cheese/peanut butter, whole grain crackers, fig bars, etc.)
  • Volunteer some time in the classroom when you can, as teachers can always use help. Whether it’s putting homework and reminders into backpacks, teaching math or reading to small groups, being an art docent, helping with field trips, leading a physical activity, etc. your help is a welcome addition to the class. If you haven’t done so this year, start next school year right by talking with your child’s teacher(s) to see how your strengths can benefit the class.
  • Host a Teacher Appreciation Breakfast (or lunch). Make it a potluck with other parents from the school, and give teachers a clue it is coming so they don’t eat breakfast at home that day.
  • Offer to build a bulletin board one month in your area of expertise.
  • Have the students bring fresh flowers for the teacher toward the beginning of the week, and one parent per classroom is in charge of bringing a vase. Flowers from home gardens are perfect.
  • Take photographs of the children in the class to put on a poster. Then have each child write a few words of thanks next to their photo.
  • Create a video with each child saying or acting out something they appreciate about their teacher.
  • Purchase or make a large tote bag for hauling supplies to school. Then, using fabric markers, have all students write their names and a brief thank you.
  • Create a goofy class photo T-shirt and have the students sign their names on the back.
  • Purchase a gift card from anywhere! Teachers nearly always appreciate any little treat. Get something from a local coffeehouse, grocery store, restaurant, pedicurist, etc. Be sure to include a few words of thanks with the card.

Hope this year you enjoy the Teacher Appreciation Week and help make a teacher in your life feel special!

How to Support Early Childhood Learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016


The demand for jobs in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (or STEM, for short) is rising each year. In fact, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports that STEM jobs are popping up more quickly than they can be filled. For every 1.9 STEM jobs in the U.S., there is only 1 person qualified to take it, with demand in these fields outpacing supply by nearly double.

For today’s generation of students, these stats are a call to action and not just because of the job market. Kids who have a strong grasp of STEM concepts are able to translate those skills to other areas and be creative problem solvers.

So what can parents do to encourage their kids in STEM fields, even at a very young age? Here are a few simple suggestions that can also be applied to classroom settings.

Play Outside

It may seem too simple to be true, but kids who have regular creative play time outside develop stronger motor skills than peers. The link between physical movement and learning is well-documented and children who feel connected to the natural world will be drawn to it. Having to interact and play with natural surroundings also forces kids to think about how things work, and how they play a role in the larger scheme of life.

Find STEM Lessons in Everyday Life

One in three American adults say they would rather clean their bathrooms than do a math problem. That’s a lot of people who would rather do just about anything than what was probably their least-favorite academic subject growing up. When we make a big deal out of topics like science, technology, engineering and math, and make them “work” to do, we risk our kids having a similarly negative opinion of the topics.

Look for simple ways in your daily routine to implement STEM concepts. This could be as easy as creating a grocery budget and asking your child to help you tally as you load the cart, or could include a more involved approach to fixing a computer or building a new website for your family business. It’s okay if you personally don’t know a lot about the topics: be willing to learn alongside your kids. You can also look up several age-appropriate STEM activities online if you really aren’t sure what to do with your kids.

Be Mindful of Your Words

If you are one of the aforementioned Americans who would rather be scrubbing a toilet than solving an equation, keep it to yourself. Parents are the most influential people in their kids’ lives and the way you talk about STEM topics will impact them. This is especially true if you have daughters, as research shows that young women tend to lose interest in STEM topics around middle school age when outside opinions really start to impact their decisions. Take a positive approach to STEM topics, even if they aren’t our strongest suit, in order to encourage your kids.

Limit Screen Time

It may seem counter-productive in a category that includes “technology” to limit electronic interaction, but it’s necessary. Simply taking in media through screens, whether on tablets, TVs or computers, is not interactive enough to be fulfilling STEM learning. If your kids seem to gravitate towards gaming or online concepts, look for concentrated ways for them to focus in small spurts (like by taking a coding class) instead of allowing them unlimited access to the technology.

When it comes to STEM learning, the best thing that parents can do is to be enthusiastic and look for ways to incorporate mini lessons into everyday life. Be willing to let your kids teach you a thing or two, too.

Products to Help STEM Skill Development

The School Specialty STEM Everyday Book Set helps students in understanding mathematical concepts and features informative real world situations. Set contains eight books including STEM Guides To Calculating Time, STEM Guides To Construction, STEM Guides to Cooking, STEM Guides To Maps, STEM Guides To Space, STEM Guides To Sports, STEM Guides To Travel, and STEM Guides To Weather.

SHAPE America National Convention 2016 Highlights

Friday, April 15th, 2016

Thank you to everyone who spent time with us during the SHAPE America National Convention in Minneapolis! We had a great time celebrating Sportime’s 50th birthday and introducing the new “Sportime featuring SPARK” brand, here to serve all of your physical education, health, and nutrition education needs.

Here are just a few highlights – see you next year in Boston!



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How Food Influences Performance

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

child nutrition

We know that nutrition influences children and how they grow. If a child has better nutrition, he or she has a better chance at success. Healthier students are better learners and are able to contribute more to the community. Here are some ways children are influenced by food choices.


Children benefit from nutrition in many of the same ways as adults do. Iron is one of the most important nutrients to helping children play and grow. Iron also helps the body cells carry oxygen to keep energy going. You can find iron in foods such as meats, liver, and beans.

Protein is also important for growing children. Protein is the main building block of your body’s cells, an energy provider, and a part of fighting infections. Children who get this nutrient from food such as animal products, nuts, or beans are able to grow strong muscles and heal after injuries.

We all know about calcium’s important role for bone and teeth health, but this nutrient is crucial for other tasks in the body as well. Calcium is useful to help the blood clot, which is an important part of the healing process after an injury. Calcium is also useful in aiding nerve and heart functions. Dairy goods are a well-known source of calcium, but calcium is also present in foods such as broccoli and spinach.

Carbohydrates are critical to giving children energy to play, think, and grow. Carbs have recently received a bit of a bad reputation, but they are still important to a child’s growth and development. To make carbohydrates more effective, consider using them with protein and serving carbohydrates with high fiber and low sugar content. Eating carbohydrates high in fiber also has the benefit of creating healthier bowel health.


Just like the body, the brain benefits from multiple vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. One of the more important nutrient groups are fatty acids. These acids include omega-3, omega-6, and DHA. These fats allow the brain to develop and maintain effective functioning. People eating a diet rich in these fatty acids are less prone to mood swings, concentration problems, and forgetfulness. There are supplements of omega fats and DHA out there, but you can also find these nutrients in food such as oily fish (salmon and sardines, for example), nuts, seeds, and whole grains.  Foods such as eggs and milk are also available with additional omega-3 fatty acids.

The brain also uses large amount of B vitamins. The brain uses B vitamins (you might also see them called folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12) to send messages between nerves and the entire body. B vitamins are found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole or fortified grains. The brain also uses vitamin C to send neural messages more effectively. Using nutrients to enhance brain function has been shown to help with recollecting information, concentration, and focus.

When Nutrition is Suboptimal

Children who don’t get the best nutrition can face many health issues, especially if they miss out on nutrients early in life. Missing nutrition, especially a severe lack of nutrition, can result in a delay or stunting of physical growth. Lacking in nutrition can make it more difficult for children to fight infections and illnesses, leading to physical harm. Children who lack a balanced diet have also been shown to have cognitive impairments, trouble with staying awake and focused, higher rates of absenteeism, and behavioral issues. Nutritional deficiencies can also affect children emotionally, as malnourished children can be more withdrawn and less helpful than other children.

Substandard nutrition can come with an excess of substances as well as a lacking. Many families and school districts looking to stretch tight budgets have relied on foods with long shelf lives to avoid waste, but many of these foods are high in sugar and simple carbohydrates while lacking other nutrients. It is important to note that malnutrition is a lack of nutrients, not food—this means even an overweight child can still have malnourishment issues.

Eat Well for Optimal Performance

Nutrition influences how children are able to grow and develop. Many of the same ideas from adult nutrition are still important with children. Getting adequate nutrition help children learn, grow, play, and interact with others. We often think of nutrition as a physical issue, but children need nutrition for their mind and feelings as well. By paying attention to children’s nutrition, we can ensure they will grow up to be healthy citizens.

4 Tips to Improve Your Child’s Sleep

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

child's sleep

Sleep isn’t just a luxury of life – it’s a health requirement for adults and kids alike. When people don’t get enough sleep, it really shows. Lack of sleep has been linked to depression, lost productivity and even obesity.

So how much sleep do kids really need? It all depends on their age. The National Sleep Foundation recommends:

  • 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day for newborns, up to 3 months of age
  • 12 to 15 hours of sleep per day for infants, age 4 to 11 months of age
  • 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day for toddlers, age 1 to 2 years old
  • 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day for preschoolers, age 3 to 5 years old
  • 9 to 11 hours of sleep per day for school age kids, age 6 to 13 years old
  • 8 to 10 hours of sleep per day for teens, age 14 to 17 years old
  • 7 to 9 hours of sleep per day for adults, age 18 and up

So what can parents do to keep their kids in line with the recommendations – particularly if bedtime is usually met with difficulty? Here are a few ways families can make sleep a household priority, with less fuss and fighting.

Stick With Routine

Our bodies respond best to repeated patterns that don’t deviate much from one day to the next. From the time your child gets home from school or child care, have a general schedule for everything from dinner to homework to bath/shower to bedtime. It can be easy to let this routine go over vacations or on the weekends, but you should really try to stick with it. Sleep is just as important on non-school days and if children get too run-down on their days off, it will manifest in lethargy, disinterest and even bad behavior. Set and keep a bedtime – and have the actions that set it up for success.

Work Up to Bedtime

This references the first point, but is a little more specific. As an adult, would you expect to go to a high-energy workout class and then fall asleep five minutes later? The same is true for kids. If they are busy running around up until the clock strikes bedtime, it will take longer for them to fall asleep. Experts now advise parents to shut off all electronics, including TVs, an hour before bedtime. Have your kids play quietly with their non-electronic toys, or read them a book, in those 60 minutes leading up to lights out. Consider the time immediately before bedtime a “warm up” for the success of the rest of the night.

Prioritize Sleep

All parents say they want their kids to sleep well but do their actions add up to that end? It’s important to not overschedule your kids, particularly if those activities stretch into the evening hours. It’s also important to say “no” to events that will cut into the evening routine and to leave events early if there will be a conflict. It’s okay to make rare exceptions but as a whole, keep bedtime and the evening routine a priority on your family calendar.

Monitor Food/Drinks in the Evening
As a general rule of thumb, don’t allow your kids anything with processed sugar after dinner. Kids should never have caffeine, as the stimulant effects can last for hours after it has entered the body. Keep in mind that chocolate has caffeine though not the high amount found in soft drinks or coffee/tea. Make sure your kids, including your teens, know the food and drink rules in the evening and set a good example by following them yourself.

Good sleeping habits take some time to cultivate and there is no quick fix for parents or kids. Establishing consistency and routine – and then making sleep a family priority – will go a long way to better rest in your household, and all of the health benefits that accompany it.