Using Pilates to Improve Academic Performance in Primary Schools

8 May, 2018

Children today are under huge pressure: to perform, to study and to do well in exams and tests. Physical education and activity are pushed down the timetable and are sometimes taken off the timetable altogether in favour of the three ‘R’s. This has led to a reduction in children’s fitness levels, a loss of basic functional movements and an increase in poor posture, not to mention a rise in obesity levels in children and adolescents.

Few people realise that, as a result of poor posture and lack of basic functional movements, learning suffers

For example, fine motor skills, such as those needed for handwriting, are affected by poor core strength as the child struggles to sit still enough to control the pencil. The brain is nourished by controlled spinal movements; therefore a slumped position that is maintained for a long time is detrimental to brain activity and doesn’t help the child to learn.

The movements in Pilates address every aspect of this, and are proving to be more popular in schools as the well-known benefits of Pilates for adults are adopted for children. Pilates helps the child in several ways, including to:

  • Improve fitness levels and cardiorespiratory capacity
  • Improve basic functional strength
  • Achieve and maintain a better posture, balance and body awareness
  • Improve fine and gross motor skills
  • Improve physical literacy and concentration

All of these benefits are important for every child throughout their school journey. Whether for younger children who are just starting school, to help them to build the core strength, coordination and balance that enables them to concentrate on their lessons, or for children who are transitioning from primary to secondary school. These older children are often moving around the new school throughout the day, carrying heavy bags that can be especially damaging for young bodies. The added weight can damage a poor posture further, causing lasting damage and problems into adulthood. Children who have a stronger torso and better posture suffer less than those have weak postural and core muscles.

Stress and anxiety are becoming well documented issues for children and Pilates has several techniques that help to alleviate them. Children often feel anxious before exams, tests, performances or reviews and the use of movement and exercise is really powerful in overcoming these feelings.

So how can a teacher introduce Pilates into the classroom? It’s not as tricky as it sounds.

Children can be taught the correct way to sit on a chair, on the carpet and on the hall floor and can be encouraged to practise this at regular intervals throughout the day. They may struggle to maintain the position but should be encouraged to keep practising and will eventually find the position easier.

Here's a simple technique any teacher can use:

  • Encourage the children to sit up tall, like a sunflower growing up to the sun
  • Shoulders should be down, away from the ears, and the children should have a long neck like a giraffe
  • When seated on the floor, legs should be crossed. Children should be actively discouraged from ‘W’ sitting (where knees are together, legs are bent and feet are at either side of the bottom). This can cause difficulties in later life with hip, leg and back problems, and can also inhibit proper function of the children’s muscles.

You could encourage the children to sit in this position while you sing a song, read a poem, watch a short video or listen to a speaker. They may struggle to maintain this position while performing other activities involving fine motor skills, so try to practise the sitting position while listening or watching, not writing or drawing.

You could also introduce controlled spinal movements to nourish the spinal fluid and activate muscles to build core strength and flexibility. The spine needs to:

  • Flex (bend forwards)
  • Extend (bend backwards)
  • Laterally flex (bend side to side)
  • Rotate (twist side to side) 

These movements should be done slowly with control and can be done standing or seated. Remind the children to breathe deeply while they are moving.

Add some balance activities while standing to encourage activation of core muscles and to build core strength. Standing on one leg or lifting heels are great balance activities for this age group. Allowing the child to focus on their own body and look inward at how their body feels and moves can also help to calm them and give them a chance to wind down if they are particularly restless.

Pilates and functional movements have so many benefits for growing and developing children; they are also a great tool for working with children with special educational needs. These children often struggle with balance, coordination, motor skills and concentration and these movements and exercises have a tremendously positive impact on these issues.

As with any lesson, the approach to teaching Pilates to children should be fun, engaging and informative, so using exciting themes and stories is highly recommended. Being creative in the delivery of the exercises really enhances the experience and encourages the children to participate fully in the session.

Pilates is non-competitive so every child can achieve and improve and gain benefits at all levels. It also provides the building blocks of competitive sports, such as core strength, balance and coordination. So whether for sport, for learning or to ease anxiety, Pilates provides excellent tools for teachers and children to ensure they are fit enough to learn.

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