Associate Professor Jennifer Beller is known for her expertise in physical/moral connections, particularly ethical issues relating to sports. But she’s also keenly interested in physical/intellectual links, as the Moscow-Pullman Daily News explains in this recent article about one of Jennifer’s projects, headlined “St. Mary’s students learn outside the box.”

By Holly Bowen
Daily News staff writer

Pam Wimer teaches a geography lesson using an outdoor map
Pam Wimer teaches geography using an outdoor map (Geoff Crimmins photo)

Children in Pam Wimer’s third-grade class at St. Mary’s School in Moscow enthusiastically ran to, then jumped on, a multicolored map of the 50 United States painted on the playground courtyard.

The map didn’t list the names of the states, but the students had no trouble determining where they were standing or which directions they needed to walk and hop to go further north, south, east and west across the map.

“We’ve never learned the states this early (in the school year),” said Wimer, who has taught at St. Mary’s School for 18 years.

However, the students are participating in the school’s new “SMARTKIDS” curriculum developed with the help of Jennifer Beller, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology at Washington State University.

The teachers and professor developed the Smart Kids concept last year when thinking of a favorite game from their own childhoods – jacks – which they said children aren’t familiar with anymore.

Unlike most school curricula today, SMARTKIDS integrates physical activity with cognitive tasks, a philosophy that goes back thousands of years, Beller said.

Jennifer Beller
Jennifer Beller

“Plato never sat,” Beller said. “He always walked.”

Every grade at St. Mary’s School participates in Smart Kids activities for about 15 minutes two or three times per week, in addition to their regular physical education classes.

During SMARTKIDS sessions, students complete academic drills – like multiplication tables, spelling or memorization – while performing physical tasks like juggling, jump-roping, balancing on a beam or inflatable workout ball or jumping on a map.

Beller and Wimer said the third-graders spent four weeks jumping onto and naming the states on the map. When the students took a quiz to gauge their knowledge, all but one student passed with flying colors. Wimer said it usually takes much longer for all the students to demonstrate proficiency.

Better than flash cards

Beller said the idea is to open up more neural pathways in the brain that enable students to recall more information than if they had simply sat at a desk and memorized flash cards.

She said learning to ride a bicycle is an example of using those additional neural pathways. People tend to fall a lot when they first begin riding, but eventually their brains remember how to stay balanced, even if they take a break from cycling for several years.

Wimer said sometimes the students are a bit fuzzy-headed when trying to recall things they’ve learned weeks ago, but once they begin performing the associated physical tasks, that fuzziness disappears.

The strategy seems to be paying off – Beller said the children easily memorized the names of 22 different bones, which usually takes several weeks.

“They all got it in five days,” she said, adding that the physical activity opens up more areas of the brain from which to recall information.

Beller said she and a colleague at WSU recently worked on a study of 200 preschoolers that found strong ties between balance activities and perceptual awareness, quantitative ability and other cognitive skills.

She said it’s not exactly cause-and-effect, but the students’ higher academic performance is correlated to the combination of cognitive and physical tasks.

“The kids can do pretty complex tasks in the process of it, and the more they do, the better they get,” she said.

WSU students collect, assess data

She said she and her own students at WSU are collecting data and assessing the children’s progress in fundamental motor skills and test scores. Tracking that progress will enable the older students to develop more complex activities for when the current crop of children grows older.

Another major bonus of the SMARTKIDS curriculum is the students seem to really enjoy it even when they’re performing memorization drills. Beller and Wimer recalled how one parent said her two boys came home and started playing “Smart Kids” on their own by reading flash cards while balancing on a workout ball.

“They’re willing to practice these flashcards and things excitedly,” Wimer said.

Kid-approved approach

Third-graders Jessica Smith, Megan Cornish, Brigid O’Sullivan, Kirstin Wambeke, Thomas Curet and Eliza O’Murphy were all excited to talk about SMARTKIDS on Wednesday afternoon. They described the curriculum as fun but sometimes challenging – in a good way.

“You get to learn while doing something fun,” Wambeke said.

Curet said he likes to turn SMARTKIDS activities into competitions against his classmates.

O’Murphy, Smith and Cornish said they especially enjoyed learning the states by jumping around on the map.

“I only knew like four states, but now I know all 50,” Smith said with a look of pride on her face.

For those who are interested in learning more about the mind-body connection, Beller recommended a TED Talk lecture by neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert, which is available online.

Reprinted with permission. Article originally published Nov. 10, 2011.