Teacher-Directed Physical Activity

Why is it important for children to engage in physical activity, and what are the benefits?  

It is currently recommended children get 60 min of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day, but current research indicates that young children do not get the recommended amount in early childhood settings,1 and, in fact, often get much less than the recommended hour.2 Children with disabilities, including autism and Down syndrome, engage in less MVPA than same-aged peers.3, 4, 5 To help all children (and especially children with disabilities) get enough MVPA every day, it is important for teachers to plan, lead, and participate in physical movement activities.

What benefits are there EBIP_teaching children outdoors_physical activity_teacher directed_4to children engaging in MVPA for 60 minutes every day? There are many! By promoting and celebrating healthy behaviors, such as active movement, you can highlight the value of exercise and decrease potential health risks relative to inactivity, such as obesity and asthma. Research has also shown that when children engage in MVPA, they may engage in fewer problem behaviors,6 have fewer symptoms related to inattention (for children ADHD)7 and physical stress (for children with ASD),8 and have increased appropriate behavior during subsequent activities. Finally, because so much time is spent outdoors during the preschool day, outdoor periods provide invaluable opportunities teach gross motor skills, fine motor skills, social skills, and communication. Because children with disabilities may have deficits in these areas, you can help students make developmental gains by capitalizing on this instructional time. Thus, increasing physical activity for young children with disabilities has the potential to improve health, social, and developmental outcomes in the long term, as well as immediately reduce challenging behaviors. Teacher-directed physical activity is one way that has been shown in the research to increase MVPA for young children.9

How can I engage in teacher-directed physical activity on the playground or in the gym?

Any time you plan for and participate in activities on the playground or in another movement area (e.g, gym, courtyard) in order to promote physical activity, you have engaged in teacher-directed physical activity. Teacher directed physical activity has been shown in the research to increase moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).9 Examples of teacher-directed activities designed to promote movement include races, team sports play, EBIP_teaching children outdoors_physical activity_taecher directed_1obstacle courses, and other common games that can require movement (e.g., Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, musical chairs). These typical childhood games can all be modified to include opportunities for MVPA. For example, Simon Says can be played using laminated visual cues that encourage gross motor movements based on animal actions (run like a cheetah, hop like a kangaroo, jump like a frog) and musical chairs can be played with chairs (or any seating surface) that are farther apart than usual. When these games are played, pay close attention to how much support is needed for the group of children as a whole, and for the success of individual children. As children get better at playing games that you lead, pay attention to the level of supports that are provided and gradually fade these supports such that children can play these games more and more independently.

In addition to leading activities, your participation in these activities can also help promote MVPA. First, by participating in exercise activities, you serve as a role model, showing that you also celebrate and participate in healthy behaviors. Second, some students are reinforced by teacher attention. By providing praise and commenting to those engaging in the movement activities with you, you reinforce MVPA, making it more likely that children will continue to engage in MVPA in the future. Third and finally, by modeling the activity, your students can learn how to engage in the activity and what MVPA looks like, just by observing you.

Where can I find additional information regarding physical activity?

  1. Tandon, P. S., Saelens,EBIP_teaching children outdoors_physical activity_teacher directed_5 B. E., & Christakis, D. A. (2015). Active play
    opportunities at childcare. Pediatrics, 135, 1425-1431.
  2. Pate, R. R., O’Neill, J. R., Brown, W. H., Pfeiffer, K. A., Dowda, M., & Addy, C. (2015). Prevalence of compliance with a new physical activity guideline for preschool-age children. Childhood Obesity, 11, 415-420.
  3. Pan, C. (2008). Objectively measured physical activity between children with autism spectrum disorders and children without disabilities during inclusive recess settings in Taiwan. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 38, 1292-1301.
  4. Sandt, D. D. R., & Frey, G. C. (2005). Comparison of physical activity between children with and without autistic spectrum disorder. Adapted Physical Education Quarterly, 22, 146-159.
  5. Lloyd, M. C. (2008). Physical activity of preschool age children with and without Down syndrome. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. University of Michigan.
  6. Neely, L., Rispoli, M., Gerow, S., & Ninci, J. (2015). Effects of antecedent exercise on academic engagement and stereotypy during instruction. Behavior modification 39, 98-116.
  7. Hoza, B., Smith, A. L., Shoulbert, E. K., Linnea, K. S., Dorsch, T. E., Blazo, J. A., Alerding, C. M., & McCabe, G. P. (2015). A randomized trial examining the effects of aerobic physical activity on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms in young children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43, 655-667.
  8. Hillier, A., Murphy, D., & Ferrara, C. (2011). Pilot study: Short-term reduction in salivary cortisol following low level physical exercise and relaxation among adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum. Stress and Health, 27, 395-402.
  9. Ledford, J. R., Lane, J. D., Shepley, C., & Kroll, S. M. (2016). Using teacher-implemented playground interventions to increase engagement, social behaviors, and physical activity for young children with autism. Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities. Advance online publication.

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

  • Chazin, K.T., Ledford, J.R., Barton, E.E., & Lane, J.D. (2016). Teacher-directed physical activity. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from http://vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/ebip/teacher-directed-physical activity