Pairing education with physical activity improves learning

Founder of education-focused day care provides tried and true methods to keeping kids focused, while learning

By Kristen Miller
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Alise McGregor, founder of Little Newtons, a pre-kindergarten structured academic learning center, believes incorporating physical activity throughout the day helps students stay focused on learning. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Kristen Miller)

When Plymouth resident Alise McGregor’s 10-year-old daughter came home from school asking for a fidget spinner, she decided to look into what this latest craze was all about.

As founder of Little Newton’s, a year-round early childhood education and day care center, with locations in Plymouth, Maple Grove, Champlin and Becker, McGregor challenged the idea that these fidget spinners were the answer to keeping children engaged in the classroom, as the marketing claims had suggested.

As a registered nurse with a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology, McGregor believes it’s physical exercise, rather, that contributes to her students focusing in the classroom.

When she started understanding fidget spinners, McGregor said she was intrigued by that fact the education system expects children to sit for long periods of time, all while staying focused on what’s being taught in the classroom.

Recent health reports show that sitting all day long isn’t healthy for adults, she said. “Why are we doing that for kids?”

Little Newtons provides a structured schedule for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, with curriculum taught 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week.

“I started this program to have a really intense academic program,” McGregor said, noting 90 percent developed by age 5. As part of that program, Little Newtons teaches five languages – Mandarin, French, Spanish, Italian, and sign language.

“The thought behind it is, not that we expect children to leave fluent in five languages, but the vocabulary that they get and their language skills are incredible, because they are just inundated with language all day long,” McGregor said, referencing one study that suggests children need to hear 30,000 words a day for academic achievement.

“We keep them really busy and engaged academically, and we don’t have a lot of behaviors,” she said.

Since every body is different, McGregor said some children have difficulty sitting for that amount of time.
“In turn we give them medication and fidget spinners,” she said.

While fidget spinners may be used to curb attention issues, “I think there are other opportunities,” she said.

At Little Newtons, children are moving every 10 minutes between activities, and McGregor sees the difference intermittent activity has on learning.
“We don’t have the behaviors, [we] don’t have the attention issues. We can keep them engaged all day,” McGregor said. “Children’s minds work so fast.”
“Kids need to move,” she said, noting they have energy they need to get out through physical activity.

As a guideline, she suggests children ages 2-3 sit no longer than 15 minutes and no longer than 25 minutes for ages 3-5.

McGregor gave the example of children breaking up their curriculum by jumping while counting by twos or dancing to the Hokey Pokey. They are still learning while they are getting physical exercise.

She has seen inactivity as having a negative cause and effect as it relates to classroom management.

If a teacher reports a class as having trouble listening or getting through activities, “nine times out of 10, they are sitting too long,” she said.
“I think keeping children busy is the best thing you can do for them,” she said.

McGregor believes it’s all about having a balance, because children also need downtime.

Speaking from her own experience as mother of a 10 year-old and 5-year-old, McGregor said children at any age need structure, even when it comes to play.

When there is no structure, that’s when her children start getting into trouble, such as arguing and fighting.
“They get bored,” she said.

Keeping kids active and engaged over the summer

With the summer upon us, children will have a lot more free time, and McGregor encourages a balance with education, outside play, physical activity and down time.
“Believe me, there is a place for iPads and movies,” she said.

Looking back on her childhood, McGregor recalls always being outside playing. Today, technology has it made it so much easier for children to stay inside and play on their tablet or watch TV, she said, noting she often hears her children complaining how hot it is, something she didn’t recall doing as a child.

Little Newtons schedules physical exercise for every 10 minutes of academics to help keep them focused on learning. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Kristen Miller)

Limiting screen time is a big thing. She recommends parents have their child help determine what that rule will be. “And hold them accountable to it,” she said.
Children under 5 years old also don’t do well with sudden changes and may respond with acting out or resistance. Tell them the schedule ahead of time so they have their expectations, she said.

For example, tell children ahead of time what you have planned for the day, and/or give them a 10-minute warning when you plan on going somewhere, even the park.

Also, just because school is out, doesn’t mean a child should stop learning.
“Reading is huge in the summer, that, I think gets lost,” she said.

Reading books and/or using different education apps on tablets will help maintain those reading skills, she noted.

Pairing outside activities with education will keep their brains working while not making them “feel like they are in school all day,” she said.

For younger learners, McGregor suggested making letters with shaving cream or chalk on the driveway.
“Baking is another one that we love,” she said.

For additional learning opportunities throughout the summer months, check out your local library. The Hennepin County Library system, for example, offers summer learning events throughout the summer.