One thing is for sure, distance learning and online school requirements have thrown those screen-time recommendations right out the window.
While some kids thrive in this digital landscape, others find the long hours of staring at a screen difficult and exhausting. For younger students especially, sitting for such long periods of time can start to negatively affect their mental and physical health. For older kids, the increase in independent homework and lack of social interaction can lead to serious burnout and frustration.
So, what can we do to help boost their movement, increase engagement and retention and encourage creativity? The answer is surprisingly simple: brain breaks!
What Are Brain Breaks?
Brain breaks are short, expected periods of time scheduled in between learning tasks that allow kids to engage in a different type of activity, from mild exercise to just relaxing. We know that resting your brain
is important for adults, and it’s just as important (if not more!) for kids.
In a physical classroom, these brain breaks fit more naturally into the day, with scheduled recesses, periods of waiting for their turn and necessary transitions between tasks that take longer with a large group of students. At home, students can be expected to move quickly from one task to the next without any opportunity to decompress.
According to Laney Kennedy at Prodigy Game, these activities allow the neural activity to switch to a different network. The result is that their brains are essentially able to reset, so when they return to the learning tasks, they are better able to focus, engage and retain information.
Now that you’re hopefully a brain break convert, let’s dig into specific ideas for each type of brain break! Try them out and see what works best for your child or students.
Physical Brain Breaks
- 20 Free Wiggle Breaks - Download and laminate these 20 free wiggle break cards, with simple, easy to do activities that will burn off some energy and get their bodies moving. These are simple and perfect for younger kids.
- Scavenger Hunt - Ask students to find an item in their house that fits a certain parameter and run back to share it on their screen. Younger kids can search for things by color, season, number, etc., while older kids might enjoy showing an item that makes them laugh, an item that brings them comfort, etc. Do a few rounds to give them plenty of time to move.
- Get Outside - Give kids an outside task, such as riding a scooter, jogging, sprints, or just looking for something outside, like a leaf that is changing colors. There are serious health benefits to being outside, breathing fresh air and being in the sun.
- Simon Says - Play this classic elementary school standard and incorporate all types of things, from movements to sound effects. If you are not in a virtual classroom, play a Simon Says game from YouTube.
- Lip Sync Battle - Have them act out the lead singer of one of their favorite bands or lip sync to one of their songs. For younger kids, play a song from Kids Bop or Disney for them to lip sync, too. Fake microphone encouraged.
- Ball Toss - Bouncing and playing with a ball requires quite a bit of coordination! Have kids bounce back and forth with another person in the house or even just back and forth with a wall. This will require them to focus intently on the movements of the ball and their body’s response to it, effectively shutting down the other areas of thought.
- GoNoodle - GoNoodle has an extensive library of short, active videos for kids on YouTube! Take advantage of this curated resource for kids!
- Brain Breaks - Use a platform like Brain-Breaks, which copyrighted the term for their comprehensive program full of 3-5 minute web-based games, videos and resources designed to maximize the results of a brain break. They offer videos from dance, culture, sports and music from all over the world!
- Move & Freeze - There are a ton of free Move & Freeze YouTube videos that you can rotate through to keep kids engaged, moving and having fun.
- Jumping - Kids love to jump and it’s actually a very beneficial activity for our bodies. If they have a mini trampoline, even better! Give them a period of time to just jump — maybe playing some music that you start and stop to give them unexpected breaks.
- Stretching - Guide kids through a faster flow stretching routine to get their bodies moving. Try yoga and Pilates poses that help reset the body after a lot of sitting, such as bridges, crab walking, side stretches and roll downs.
- Make a Band - Ask students to grab an instrument or make an impromptu instrument with something as simple as a cooking utensil and a plastic bowl. Start counting a beat and let them start creating music in new ways.
- Quick Exercises - Select a series of exercises and then instruct students to do them in rapid order with 5 of the first, 4 of the second, 3 of the third and so on. Easy exercises could include jumping jacks, squats, pushups, high knee jumps, skaters, and sit-ups
- Fast Flow Yoga - Pick an energizing yoga flow from a YouTube kids yoga channel (like Cosmic Kids) and let the movement get their heart rates up!
- Dance Break - Kids are natural dancers. Put on some upbeat music and let them go.
- Charades - With at least two people, play a quick game of charades, using cards that must be acted out. Easy categories like animals and sports are perfect for an energizing break.
Invite families to sign up for time at the playground with an online sign up. View an Example
Creative Brain Breaks
- Play with Play-Doh - Simply playing with Play-Doh or something similar can help relieve the brain from overthinking or stressing about homework.
- Kinetic Sand - Kinetic sand is affordable and fun to use. Just 5-10 minutes can help the reset growing minds for more academic time.
- Bubbles - Bubbles are so much fun and very entertaining! Go outside for a few minutes of bubble blowing and popping time.
- Gardening - Do you have a garden? Can you start a small garden? Digging in the dirt and nurturing plants to grow is a great learning experience and an excellent sensory break.
- Sensory Bins - If you have any sensory bins, now is the time to dust those off! Sensory bins can be made pretty easily with simple bases like colored rice and beans and add-ins from the dollar store. Or they can be created outside with things like bubble bath and some dirty toys to scrub!
- Doodle Time - Blank paper and something to draw with and it is time to go. Let their creativity run wild or put on a fun how to draw video for them to follow along.
- Painting - Painting requires different fine motor skills than writing, plus you get to use colorful and creative mediums. Offer opportunities to explore painting with paint, brushes, fingerpaints, canvases, or whatever else helps the creative juices flow.
- Foam Fun - Spray shaving cream on a washable table (preferably outside) or in a washable bin. Add dots of food coloring and let them mix and see how the colors swirl. Add easy to clean toys for a foamy wonderland.
- LEGO - Have a little engineer? Make sure to give them time to build with their LEGO blocks or other favorite engineering toy.
- STEM Labs - Does your kid love STEM labs? You can recreate these experiences at home by picking up simple supplies and prepared activities at very affordable prices on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers and The Stem Laboratory.
Organize school STEM activities with an online sign up. View an Example
Social Brain Breaks
- Call a Relative - Make a list of relatives who kids would like to talk to and have them choose one each time until they have exhausted their list. You may want to reach out to the relative in advance to schedule the time together, since they’ll only have 5-10 minutes.
- FaceTime a Friend - Get in touch with those old friends and schedule a FaceTime call! Kids love seeing each other’s faces.
- Visit a Neighbor - Do you have a neighbor nearby who would love a (socially distant) visit? Maybe have a special treat to share and chat for a few minutes or schedule a fun play date with a neighbor for in-between class sessions.
- Choose a Friend - If you’re doing this with a class, rotate pairs of kids who get to call each other and chat. You can even give them conversation starters or fun questions to ask and share with the group later.
- Play with a Pet - Playing with a pet, such as walking a dog or playing catch or cuddling with a cat stimulates similar chemical responses as human interaction. This is why pets can be powerful for mental health! Set aside time to play with your pets or borrow a neighbor’s pet for a few minutes of fun time.
- Help Others - There are so many benefits to acts of service for others! Have your child come up with something they could do for someone else, either collecting toys or clothes they have outgrown to donate to a shelter or creating a lovely gift or card that they can deliver to someone nearby. They’ll love the feeling of doing something kind for another person.
Coordinate a coat drive with an online sign up to help those in need. View an Example
An Unstructured Brain Break
- Free Play - Let them choose the activity. Give kids 5-10 minutes to do any activity they would like. They can dress up in costumes, do art, rest, play a game, play with a sibling, or whatever else they want. You may only want to give the stipulation that they cannot choose anything technology based.
Relaxing Brain Breaks
- Guided Meditation - Use a free app like Headspace that has child-specific guided meditations. Do as a class or have your child pick a comfortable, quiet spot where they can use headphones to zone out. Get in a comfortable position and enjoy.
- Affirmations - Our minds are very powerful and repeating positive phrases over and over can start to increase self-esteem, encourage a growth mindset and improve outlook. Find a list of positive affirmations and have kids choose a few that really speak to them. Then, they just repeat these affirmations quietly to themselves for a few minutes a day.
- Breathing Exercises - Learning to control our breath is an excellent way to reduce stress and improve emotional regulation — or your ability to return to a calm, balanced state of mind after having a heightened emotion (either positive or negative). Look for a kid-friendly breathing exercise meditation on YouTube to teach them simple techniques until they are able to do them on their own.
- Coloring - Coloring is such a simple, yet powerful, brain break that is great for adults, too! Print out relaxing coloring pages online or choose books or pages on a certain subject matter to extend learning. You can even find coloring pages with positive messages, like these 5 free empowering coloring pages for kids.
- Gentle Movement - Choose a relaxing yoga video for kids on YouTube or a calming video designed to de-energize. Save energetic movement for physical brain break time!
- Do Nothing - Sometimes, you just need to rest or take a very short nap. If that’s how your kid is feeling, grant them that wish with a “do nothing” brain break.
- Reading - If you have a little reader who loves nothing more than a good book, make sure they get some time during the day to unwind and dig in to their new favorite.
If you’re curious about the science behind how brain breaks can tangibly benefit kids, read on! There’s a ton of fascinating research.
The Benefits of Brain Breaks
A pivotal study
in 2012 by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her colleagues at MIT and USC examined neural activity of the brain while at rest and they discovered that breaks keep our brains healthy and play a key role in cognitive abilities, such as reading comprehension and divergent thinking (the ability to generate and make sense of novel ideas).
The brain break ideas above are organized in different categories, each offering its own unique benefits. By alternating between types of brain breaks, kids can receive all of the benefits over the course of the learning day or week.
- Physical: Physical brain breaks, such as light exercise and physical challenges, help kids burn off energy, get much needed movement, and can increase cognitive function when they return.
- Creative: Creative brain breaks are equally important. Sensory brain breaks allow kids to stimulate more senses, get out in nature, decreases stress and anxiety, and engage their creative sides.
- Social: Social interaction is so important for kids. When they play together, they learn important interpersonal skills, such as communication, compromise, and conflict resolution. They also learn more about who they are as individuals and their unique gifts and zones of genius. We shouldn’t, and don’t have to, give up all social interaction simply because we are behind a computer screen! Social brain breaks will use creative strategies to engage students socially regardless of location.
- Unstructured: If playing is serious business, then unstructured playtime is the king of play. Allowing students to make their own choices and have the freedom to decide how they will spend their time is actually teaching them very important life skills. According to Youki Terada on Edutopia, unstructured brain breaks give kids the opportunity to explore their own new ideas and de-stress, without the fear of failure or the stress of grades.
- Relaxing: Sometimes we all need a few minutes to focus on our breathing, do some light, guided meditation, or just fully relax our minds and bodies. Think of this as the equivalent to the savasana pose at the end of a yoga class. Plus, learning specific techniques, such as breath work and visualization, are powerful skills that kids can take into adulthood to help improve their mental health and emotional recalibration skills.
How to Use Brain Breaks
If you’re wondering how to work these different types of brain breaks into your day, either as a teacher or a parent currently monitoring distance learning, you will be happy to learn that it is super easy and quick to do.
The tenants of brain breaks are simple. They should be short and scheduled. This means look at your schedule in advance and isolate a few times during the day when you can incorporate brain breaks. This might be before a class, in between class sessions, after a snack, after lunch, at the end of the school day, or even in the evening when you have periods of time when kids are going wild.
If you are an educator, a study by Karrie E. Godwin in 2016 showed that engagement definitely increased with shorter learning segments followed by a short break versus one longer segment. So, if you can break up a longer task that would take 30-minutes into three 10-minute tasks and incorporate a break, you’ll be able to enjoy more focused, engaged students and better work quality.
Here’s a quick example of how you might incorporate the 5 types of brain breaks during a typical school day:
- Before School: Start with a relaxing brain break, such as a 5-minute guided meditation, short chant with positive affirmations, or savasana pose with guided visualization of how their school day might go. Quiet classical music can play in the background and you can even diffuse some essential oils.
- Between Class 1 and 2: Do a 5-minute exercise brain break to keep the energy high and clear their minds.
- After Snack: Let them eat first, so they’re not distracted by food. Then, do a short unstructured brain break to give them time to explore and be creative.
- After Lunch: Let them eat first. Time to be social! Incorporate a short social brain break.
- After School: They may be tired. Use a sensory brain break to engage completely different senses and let them decompress.
As a parent, the beauty here is being able to customize these brain breaks to your child’s unique rhythm, what they need and how they learn best. They might also respond best to certain types of brain breaks. For example, a very active child might need more physical brain breaks throughout the day and less relaxing or sensory breaks. Another child might be the opposite. Find what works and do more of that!
If you’re an educator, consider how to keep things moving and suggest a brain break for everyone to do together. Work to the strengths of your group but try to allow for certain kids who may need a different kind of brain break to be at their best.
Including brain breaks into your day is easier than it may seem, especially with these 40 ready-to-go activities. Pick and choose the ones that are right for your kid and start incorporating them into your daily routine. Watch as these breaks offer a chance for your kid to breathe, rest, relax, get creative, and get back to learning recharged.
Erica Jabali is a freelance writer and blogs over at ispyfabulous.com.