By Jeffrey Linforth, PE and Fitness Teacher
What an honor it was when Executive Director Dr. Sally Sover and the entire Cove community welcomed Dr. John Ratey and Mr. Paul Zientarski to speak to our parents, teachers and greater Cove community on Thursday, January 18 and Friday, January 19. The presentation New Brain Research: How Movement and Exercise Spark Student Learning focused on the need to incorporate movement and exercise to optimize learning, reduce stress and provide lifelong health benefits.
This presentation was especially meaningful and relevant for The Cove School. Dr. Ratey and Mr. Zientarski spoke to a large group of parents from the community on Thursday night, January 17, followed by a presentation on Friday, January 18, for The Cove School staff. This event was open to community education professionals. All attendees were inspired by the presentation and eager to implement the ideas into their classrooms and personal lives.
Students across the nation are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression and ADHD. However, regular exercise can help reduce the symptoms of these disorders and maximize student learning. Dr. Ratey’s and Mr. Zientarski’s efforts in this field have inspired Cove’s work for many years, where the SPARK curriculum is an integral part of our PE program. Moreover, our teachers have been provided with strategies to incorporate movement breaks throughout the day. Our Occupational Therapists have created a rich morning movement curriculum that gets our students up and moving to be ready for the day ahead.
Dr. John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is an internationally recognized expert in Neuropsychiatry and one of the world's foremost authorities on the brain-fitness connection. His best-selling book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain was the focal point of the presentation. With the publication of Spark, Dr. Ratey has embarked on a worldwide mission to re-engineer schools, corporations and individual lifestyle practices by incorporating exercise to achieve peak performance and optimum mental health. He certainly inspired us at Cove to get ourselves and our students up and moving to maximize success, improve mood and bolster brain development.
Dr. Ratey explained the science behind why exercise helps optimize brain functioning. Brain Growth Factor (BDNF) a brain chemical he described as “Miracle Grow” for the brain, acts as an antidepressant, reduces stress and supports intelligence and memory. Dr. Ratey explained that exercise increases the production of BDNF, allowing our brains to make more neural connections. Dr. Ratey explained that the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex, both of which play a role in dancing, are rewired and consequently improved with frequent use. Therefore, having dance be a part of the elementary and junior high specials classes at Cove is advancing and strengthening their brains. Dr. Ratey told us that with regular exercise, children and adults of all ages can grow their brain’s volume, which improves the ability to learn, focus and experience less anxiety and depression.
Dr. Ratey was joined in the presentation by Paul Zientarski, who created the Learning Readiness PE Program that was featured in Spark. He is a worldwide educational consultant and was appointed to the Illinois Stakeholder and Expert Task Force for Physical Education. Dr. Ratey’s brain research and Mr. Zientarski’s practical ideas were incredibly informative for parents seeking input on how to best help their children learn, as well as educators looking for guidance to improve student performance academically, behaviorally and emotionally.
Friday’s day-long session was truly an active learning environment where participants were able to discover cutting-edge neuroscience research on how movement is essential to brain development, and why locomotor activities are critical to academic success. These topics are so valuable for our students at Cove. The neuroscience of exercise and how it relates to ADHD was thoroughly discussed. There has been a wealth of studies in the laboratory, clinically and epidemiologically suggesting that moving our bodies and our muscles has a direct effect on building and preserving our brains. This presentation outlined the convincing arguments that our large thinking brains evolved to help us be better movers, and that each time we move we activate and strengthen our 100 billion cells and keep them ready to learn and remember. The brain’s chemistry is changed when we move, improving our attention and compensating for many learning challenges. Mr. Zientarski showed the group numerous ways to take the theory and academic research conducted by Dr. Ratey and turn it into concrete findings of increased academic performance. Mr. Zientarski presented ways to integrate exercise programs such as The Learning Readiness Physical Education program used at Naperville Central High School into our Cove High School teaching practices. “Brain breaks,” small physical activity breaks during the day, were discussed, demonstrated and shown to be a proven technique to incorporate movement into learning. Teachers received valuable advice from these two amazing educators on topics of classroom layout, brain break movement, and the overall design of a movement-based educational program. The day included participatory movement activities, which got the entire Cove School teaching community up and moving!
The Cove School is committed to providing rich, cutting-edge professional development for our staff and the greater professional educational community. This event was well received by the educators, parents and community members who attended.