Montpelier’s Elementary School Boosts Brain Power with Physical Education

by Mary Mello

Emmanuel Riby-Williams surveys his physical education class with a watchful, smiling face. He’s surrounded by seventeen tiny kindergartners furiously moving their arms like windmills as they warm up before class. For their teacher, it’s been a long journey from his childhood in tropical Ghana on the west coast of Africa to this red brick building in central Vermont. His schooling, based on British models, was rigid and demanding. Expectations were high, he says, but schools paid little attention to the application of knowledge. Discipline was harsh and, as for physical education, it simply wasn’t taught.

“We might have competitive games for a week or two, but there was no regular instruction,” he explains. This isn’t the kind of education he wants for his own children or the ones he teaches here at Union Elementary School (UES) in Montpelier. “Teaching physical education is a passion for me,” he says. “I want my students to know their bodies and what their bodies can do.”

Physical education, as Emmanuel knows, has been evolving for decades. No longer simply about things like learning the rules for dodgeball, it’s now about mens sana corpore sano—a sound mind in a healthy body. There’s a growing awareness that physical exercise has a profound impact on the brain’s ability to learn.

According to Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “Memory retention and learning functions are all about brain cells actually changing, growing and working better. Exercise creates the best environment for that process to occur.”

Ironically many school districts in the country are reducing both recess time and physical education budgets even as they obsess about test scores.

At Union Elementary, however, both outdoor play and physical activity are fostered under the leadership of two dynamic physical education teachers: Emmanuel and his co-worker, Marie Jennings (known to the entire UES community as “MJ”).

MJ knew when she was twelve years old that she wanted to be a physical education teacher.  “I loved all kinds of physical activity,” she says. “I remember watching a friend cry before P.E. I couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t want to go to class. She told me, ‘I hate it. I hate it. I can’t do the mile; I can’t do anything. I’m never gonna be any good.’” That experience resonated with MJ: “I told myself I’d remember that when I was a teacher. I wanted to get to those kids who think they’re never going to be any good.”

MJ seems to be reaching the kids at UES. Her Jumping Jelly Beans Club became so popular that she now has to rely on a lottery system to limit enrollment in the jump rope group. “I just put the names in a bag,” she says. The Jelly Beans brought down the house when they performed for the school in April, and parents now report that their kids “won’t stop jumping at home.”

You can hear an echo of their teachers’ enthusiasm when you talk to students at UES. “I know I’m getting stronger,” says one second-grader. “I can feel my heart really pumping when we do our exercises.” That pumping heart, according to Dr. Ratey, is what makes the brain “ready, willing and able” to learn.

For Emmanuel and MJ, however, it’s as much about the joy of movement as raising test scores. Both teachers love to take their students outdoors, and last winter they introduced the school’s first snowshoe program. Experienced students helped those who had never been on snowshoes before. First-grader, Elly, describes her first time on snowshoes: “I tripped and fell in the snow and I got covered with snow and it was SO fun.”

Sound minds in healthy bodies. UES students are learning what that feels like every day. What do they think of the school’s physical education program? Six-year-old Marie sums it up in one sentence: “Every single thing we do is my favorite thing.”

Mary Mello is a teacher at Union Elementary School.

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