In August 2019, my then 12-year-old daughter came home from her first day of school with the class schedule in her hand. What drew my attention was that she was only going to have PE once per week! On the very same day I had a conversation with our PE educator for the Primary Years Program (PYP), Dejan Jovanovic, on how to enhance physical activity amongst our students for the benefits of focus, academic achievement and well-being.
He had recently been to the International Physical Literacy Conference in Umeå, and I had been reading up on the body-brain connections for some time, going to courses and webinars on applied neuroscience.
We decided to make a joint PLC project of our idea and started a mission that all learners should be granted physical activity every day at school. Dejan would be focusing on the concept of focus in connection to academic achievement, and I would expand that to involve wellbeing, connecting it to the IB PYP PSPE curriculum.
“Many educators argued that the time for physical activities would steal time from other things.”
We invited all classes in the PYP to join the pilot case. Two educators joined, so in total we had three classes, my own class included. Many educators argued that the time for physical activities would steal time from other activities. Back then, we didn’t succeed in getting most of the educators onboard and to join the pilot, because we didn’t manage to communicate well all the benefits there are from learners being physically active.
We called the programme Just Move and we implemented three 30 minute sessions, in addition to the two 60 minutes PE lessons that the PYP learners had each week. The PE educator designed the Just Move sessions to specifically target the area of focus, which would lead to better academic achievements. He did the testing before, during and after our PLC project, and the results were clear. All students had enhanced their focus skills.
After the Just Move physical activity sessions I used to ask my students how they felt, referring back to general well-being. One of my students coded a wellbeing barometer, so that we could have some data for it. This is how the programme started to grow as the learners learnt more about the body-brain connection.
“Did you know that after only 20 minutes of sitting down at a desk our brain capacity slows down?”
Humans thrive when we can be physically active, because it stimulates our brain capacity. Our bodies were made for moving. For example, did you know that after only 20 minutes of sitting down (at a desk) our brain capacity slows down? This is because it’s a signal to our system that we are resting. My son asked me when he heard this fact, “But mama, why are we sitting down so much at school?” Wow, what a valuable provocation question coming from a 14-year-old.
The learners in my class started to become increasingly fascinated by applied neuroscience as I introduced them to the intriguing world of neurotransmitters such as oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and cortisol. They started to learn about how they could use that knowledge and apply it to create safe and friendly spaces, stay motivated and learn better.
Another example of learner agency and co-agency was the group who made an art and yoga project, combining their skills in the arts, painting canvases featuring encouraging words, and guiding the class through yoga exercises.
“We came to have a mindfulness moment every day after lunch.”
We have a big Indian community in our school, so many learners are practitioners of yoga. We came to have a mindfulness moment every day after lunch. If I could show you photos, you would see learners sitting crossed-legged with eyes closed, just making a mindful transition from lunch to the next activity. In the initiating phases there was a lot of giggling, but as we proceeded into the school year, they fully owned this moment.
What was the biggest learning experience? The students became organised and wanted to lead the Just Move sessions themselves. The beauty of authentic learner agency. One learner stepped up and became the coordinator and the learners just had to confirm with me about what type of training they wanted to lead; anaerobic, aerobic, agility, coordination, games, and so forth.
In March 2020 the pandemic came into our lives, but in Sweden we continued to learn and teach onsite. Luckily we had a beautiful and sunny spring, so I decided to embark on more outdoor education.
This also led to reflecting more of the concept of a classroom without walls. I started to use the local environment much more. We went to the park next to school more often, did Just Move followed by art, math or unit work.
We walked to the outdoor folk museum, using the walk there to instil a habit of walking, and to talk about how clear the mind feels after a walk. At the park by the museum, we would unpack our backpacks and unfold our blankets and stationery and start the daily work.
“The learners absolutely loved how we had squirrels in our classroom.”
The learners absolutely loved how we had squirrels in our classroom, and how nice and calm it was to sit under a gigantic tree and feel a slight breeze while working on a language task. In the midst of the pandemic it was harmony under that gigantic tree.
The stories are many and it is difficult to choose from them, but I would like to mention the sessions about the growth mindset too. I implemented a growth mindset practice with journaling and visual teaching. I connected it to the IB PYP ATL skill self management.
It started with creating awareness, and incorporating it into their own learning on learning how to learn. On the last day of school, cards from parents and learners emphasised how they had loved the growth mindset focus. The learners had brought home that kind of being and communicating.
We got the principal onboard and in August 2020 all the PYP 2-6 classes embarked on the Just Move journey, putting the three sessions on the schedule. That was such a big break-through. From January 2021, my colleague Nanna Spetz and I were involved again and continued to develop the programme, working with the class educators on Hackathon Sprints to improve the programme’s fit for the different age groups.
We ran feedback and support sessions with the educators. This school year, 2021-22, Nanna will work half time as a Well-being Instructor at our school. That is pretty amazing. Nanna has a background as a sports psychologist and has a very positive outlook on life.
Back to 2020, as we moved deeper into Swedish autumn and winter, the pandemic took its toll on us educators. Stress and fatigue kicked in, and, to a degree, fear of being at work in a building with 400+ people every day, whilst the third wave of the pandemic was at its peak, and our town was in the top three of affected cities in Sweden.
“Educators deserve much more attention with regards to work well-being.”
It was a bizarre feeling going to work, when so many others worked from home. We were risking our own health every day. Many of our colleagues got corona and we felt it was about time to create a well-being programme for the educators too. The educator in the room is the number one factor of learner success according to Hattie. That is, how the educator facilitates the learning space.
Educators deserve much more attention with regards to work well-being. Hopefully the pandemic has opened up a door emphasising educators’ health. Nanna and I created a programme, An Athlete’s Mindset, that focuses on resilience skills to navigate the unpredictability of everyday life in 2021, which brought light to a growth mindset approach and boosted team culture. The feedback from the educators were warm words of appreciation. We so much needed the dedicated time to talk about these things.