Before I started teaching at a Finnish public school, I taught first graders in Arlington, Massachusetts. And I had a sharp-eyed mentor teacher named Joanna.
"Psst. Can I speak with you for a second?" Joanna pulled me aside during a lunch break. She wasn’t wearing her characteristic smile. "Tim, please don’t be offended by what I’m about to say, but whenever I peek into your classroom, you always seem to be sitting down with your first graders on the rug." The criticism stung—not because it was off-target, but because I knew it was true.
My habit of requiring my young students to sit passively for a half-hour or so on the rug was clearly not working for them. By the time I’d release them from the rug to do independent work, they were exasperated and I had to peel a few of them from the floor.
Armed with an old-fashioned stopwatch, I forced myself to keep all of my lessons under 15 minutes. The results were encouraging: My students transitioned quickly and worked more efficiently at their tables when I kept these lessons short. But I soon detected another obvious problem.
My students were sitting down nearly 100 percent of every class. Intuitively, I knew this was problematic and later, I found out why.
When I stopped to think of it, whenever I’d visit other schools in the states, I would see the same phenomenon. American students were being asked to sit for the majority of lessons. Not only that, but they weren’t very active during the entire school day. And this could only mean that millions of children were missing out on the rich benefits of being more physically active.
Research has shown that physical activity can fend off obesity, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve cognitive functions—like memory and attention—and positively impact mental health.
I somewhat assumed that the lack of physical activity in schools was an American problem—a natural byproduct of long school days and limited opportunities for recess. But when I started teaching in Finland, I saw the same thing happening at my public school, Ressun peruskoulu, a bilingual "comprehensive" (grades one to nine) school in downtown Helsinki with nearly 400 students.
At first, this didn’t add up. Kids in Finland have short school days and frequent 15-minute breaks—typically there’s one after each 45-minute lesson. And even though the breaks keep them more focused in the classroom, they don’t necessarily keep them more active at school.
On the playground—sunshine or snowfall—I’d find many young Finnish children spending recess passively. Some would be tapping away on their smart phones, hooked by the latest mobile game, while others would be huddled together, sitting down on benches or standing in small groups and chitchatting. Usually, I could find a handful of students playing tag or soccer. But the number of passive kids typically seemed to exceed the number of active ones. In the hallways of my school, older students were often slouched against the wall or even lying down, waiting for their next lesson to begin.
Finnish researchers recently confirmed my observations. On the "Finnish Report Card 2014 on Physical Activity for Children and Youth," kids in Finland received a "D" for overall physical activity levels. In 2013, one study revealed that only half of the participating Finnish elementary students met the national guideline of engaging in at least one hour of "moderate-to-vigorous" physical activities each day. Among middle-school students, the figure was even worse: 17 percent.
Finland wasn’t the only country that did poorly on its physical activity report card. On the "2014 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth," America received a "D-" for overall physical activity levels. Roughly a quarter of American children ages six through 15 are active an hour per day on at least five days of the week, according to the report card.
Though children in both countries suffer from low activity levels, a key difference exists between Finland and the United States: Hundreds of schools across this tiny Nordic nation are now endeavoring to keep kids active throughout the day through a relatively new government initiative called "Finnish Schools on the Move." This experiment could serve as an example of what America, where problems such as childhood obesity are on the rise, could do to get kids more active.
Between 2010 and 2012, 45 Finnish schools piloted the program. And the results were hopeful, demonstrating schools can increase the physical activity of children as long as they make the effort. According to a survey conducted after the pilot program, half of participating elementary school students and a third of middle school students reported an increase in physical activity.
Earth-shattering outcomes? No. "It takes some time for the actions taken to manifest and as a result, long-term and systematic development work is required to increase children’s physical activity during the school day," says a summary of the pilot program. But humble as it was, "Finnish Schools on the Move" was a step in the right direction.
Tuija Tammelin—the research director of LIKES, the foundation that conducted the study of the pilot program—tells me that she is impressed with the rapid adoption of "Finnish Schools on the Move." In just a couple of years, the number of participating "comprehensive" schools has grown from 45 to nearly 800. In the fall, my school launched this initiative, and I’ve been able to see "Finnish Schools on the Move" in action.
It’s just past noon on a mid-December school day, and I wander outside during one of those 15-minute breaks. Now that my school has launched "Finnish Schools on the Move," I wonder if anything has changed about my students’ behavior. Will I see fewer kids slothing around the playground?
In neon-yellow vests, two of my sixth graders—Emmi and Marianne—are facilitating a popular game known as "Banana Tag." (The names used for the students cited in this article are pseudonyms.) Around them, about a dozen younger children are dashing back and forth.
Emmi and Marianne are "recess activators," meaning they’ve been trained to work with their younger peers, especially first and second graders, once a week. A few minutes before I arrived, the two girls had huddled up with these 7- and 8-year-olds and decided on a game to play.
I walk up to Emmi during the middle of her game, and as the youngsters cheerfully zigzag to avoid us, I ask her whether the little kids are more active during recess now that she’s leading games. She gives me one of those looks kids give when adults ask them a question that has an obvious answer. With her eyebrows raised, she nods vigorously—a cue that I should jump out of their way.
Eventually it became clear that what I observed that day with Emmi and Marianne was a daily routine. Every day at noon, several recess activators engage in similar activities, dispersing across the blacktopped playground and recruiting younger children to join them in active games like "Banana Tag."
I visit another school in the Finnish city of Salo—a two-hour drive from Helsinki. There, I find sixth graders helping out in a different way.
A lesson has just ended and I watch as dozens of elementary school students flock to the foyer where their winter coats and outdoor shoes are kept. But instead of zooming outside, which might have been the case in the past, several children stay behind and form a straight line in front of a table near the front door. Each child grasps a slip of paper the size of a business card. These papers, I discover, are "passports" granting them the right to borrow exercise equipment during recess.
A few moments later, two older students slide behind the table. With a key from the teacher’s lounge, they unlock the compartment underneath the table and call up the first child—a petite, blond-haired boy.
"What do you want?" one of the older kids chirps after collecting the boy’s "passport." The boy asks for a basketball and, once it’s presented, snatches it happily and rushes outside. Next, a round-faced brunette steps up and requests a jump rope. And so it goes until the long line of eager children disappears.
Curious as to whether this program has been as successful as that at my Helsinki school, I step up to the counter and ask the older students if they’ve also witnessed a change in the level of physical activity during break times. Their answer, unsurprisingly, is also yes.
But that isn’t enough to convince me that the program is producing results across the board. Although I saw younger children moving a lot during their breaks, I still wonder about the impact of "Finnish Schools on the Move" on older students. After all, the pilot program revealed that sedentary behavior at school increased steadily by age. Later surveys, moreover, reported that just a third of students in grades seven through nine increased their level of physical activity each day despite participating in the pilot.
So I catch up with Heidi Rautajoki, the P.E. teacher at my school who is coordinating the program. Although she’s pleased with the work of recess activators like Emmi and Marianne, Heidi acknowledges that something needs to be done about the older children. But she has a plan.
This upcoming fall, my school will transition to a different daily schedule that is designed to allow students extra time to engage in the physical activities that interest them most; instead of short, 15-minute recesses, the school will offer at least one 30-minute break. This change will especially benefit the students in grades seven through nine at my school: They’ve outgrown games like tag and need something more developmentally appropriate to get their heart rates up.
Under this new model, the older students will have the chance to come up with their own diversions to keep themselves active during the school day: yogalates, floor hockey, or gymnastics, to name a few of the possibilities. The kids get to dream it up; as long as it’s something vigorous, it’s an option. Students will run and direct these activities—and that’s intentional. Finnish schools are encouraging children to take ownership by inviting their ideas and carving out the time and space for these activities to happen at school.
But this model doesn’t only underscore value of student empowerment. It also demonstrates that increasing physical activity shouldn’t be a goal reserved only for recess or P.E. class. And Heidi agrees:"P.E. lessons are just not enough."
In fact, I’ve come to realize that class time should also involve physical activity. When my school’s faculty introduced "Finnish Schools on the Move" last year, the coordinators came up with various strategies for getting students to be more active during lessons: offer "energizers" (short breaks from sitting for students during lessons), allow kids to complete work while standing, and replace conventional chairs with exercise balls so that students can bounce and learn simultaneously, for example.
I’ve since searched for even more ways to activate my sixth graders during lessons. One of the strategies I experimented with last fall is what I call "the active gallery walk," which keeps kids moving yet ensures they’re focused during class.
This tactic grew out of my frustration with a very traditional way of doing school. All too often, students present their work passively; they stand at the front of their classrooms with a poster or slideshow presentation and lecture the class on what they’ve learned, for example. Not only does this common practice consume a lot of instructional time, but it’s also unproductive. Sitting down and listening to numerous presentations in a row can become eye-glazingly boring for everyone in the class—including the teacher—no matter how skillfully the students share their work.
While giving students the opportunity to present their learning is, of course, important, I’d argue that it’s not worth doing if it’s not engaging and active for kids. Hence, the active gallery walk.
Here’s how it works: Students fasten their presentations to the walls of the classroom or hallway as if they were exhibiting their work in an art gallery. Each display is numbered and the children rotate from exhibit to exhibit systematically, spending a minute or two carefully studying each one. To make this experience more meaningful, students provide written-feedback to each other as they’re visiting each display. Before they start the active gallery walk, I hand out sticky notes in two different colors. On one color, my sixth graders write questions about the work for the presenter to consider and on the other, they jot down positive observations.
And although they appear to bob happily throughout an active gallery walk—as they lean in to view each presentation and scrawl feedback on sticky notes—perhaps the best part for them comes after the activity is over. They rush to take down their presentations and return to their desks, where they then scrutinize the feedback from their classmates. Naturally, I give them time to revise their work. And to my delight, students have always chosen to improve their presentations without any prodding from me.
Halfway through our most recent active gallery walk, I check my watch and I’m amazed at how quickly time is flying by. Twenty minutes have already passed, but it feels as if we’ve just begun. Emmi turns around when she hears me exclaim "wow!", and asks for an explanation. I show her the time and, like me, she can’t believe the number of minutes that have elapsed. We agree that learning should feel this way all the time.
Jukka, another one of my students, approaches me after the active gallery walk, gives me a high five, and thanks me for the lesson. But in my mind his expression of gratitude—as if I’d just given Jukka and his classmates an unexpected gift—is unwarranted. All students deserve active, engaging lessons like the one he and Emmi just experienced.
"Finnish Schools on the Move" has helped me to see that schools in America—and around the world—can increase the physical activity of children by nudging all students to take ownership of their active lifestyles and encouraging teachers to come up with creative ways of getting kids to move inside their classrooms.