Study puts the ‘exercise’ into maths exercises

Oct 7 2015

Nick Riley

A University of Newcastle research trial that puts a literal spin on the term maths “exercises” has yielded significant physical and academic benefits in Hunter primary school students.

Run by Nick Riley, a former teacher now working as an education lecturer and physical activity researcher, the EASY Minds program used simple playground tasks to encourage children to be active during their mathematics lesson.

With increasing time pressures on school curriculums, it reduced sedentary behaviour while stimulating on-task performance, according to results published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

“There is evidence to suggest that children around the world are showing less interest in mathematics,” Mr Riley said. “At the same time, PE is becoming marginalised as the curriculum gets more crowded, so we need to look at new and innovative ways to teach.

“Combining the two makes both subjects more interesting and enjoyable for children.”

Years 5 and 6 at Floraville, Jesmond, Islington and New Lambton South primary schools received the EASY (Encouraging Activity to Stimulate Young Minds) intervention and the data was compared with four ‘control’ schools. Teachers were trained to deliver the active lessons three times a week and students continually asked “are we doing fun maths today?”

“Children normally spend about 80 per cent of their learning time sitting down, with negative health consequences, so our results showed a significant rise in physical activity levels across the maths period,” Mr Riley said. “On-task behaviour in maths improved by around 14 per cent.”

Feedback showed it gave maths a real-life context, with students seeing a practical application for the subject through natural links. Those with a poor sense of distance, for example, were asked to wear a pedometer and count the number of steps, then calculate the distance – they would also measure it with a trundle wheel.

“The children would get a kilometre of walking without them realising it,” Mr Riley added.
“Boys and girls were also volunteering to do push-ups, whereas in a PE lesson they probably wouldn’t want to.”

Schools are now continuing the program under the banner ‘Thinking while Moving’ and implementing their own ideas, while Mr Riley is currently running professional development workshops for teachers around NSW.

The study was supported by the Department of Education School Sport Unit. Other members of the research team were Professor Philip Morgan,

Professor David Lubans and Associate Professor Kathryn Holmes.

* Nick Riley is a lecturer in the University of Newcastle’s School of Education and researcher with the Priority Research Centre in Physical Activity and Nutrition. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.