Hip hop, kung fu and mathematics

Do kids who exercise regularly perform better at school?

This is the $64,000 question a Université de Montréal team of researchers addressed in a study of 140 school children who were asked to double, and even triple, the time they spend doing exercise at school. “This kind of study has never been conducted in such a controlled manner. We’re very excited about the possibility of demonstrating a correlation between physical activity and learning conditions,” states Suzanne Laberge, a professor of sports sociology in the Department of Kinesiology.

Prof. Laberge does not believe that her results will necessarily translate into higher marks at school. But she does think she will be able to measure elements such as self-esteem, confidence, attention and concentration.

Along with eight university students, including coordinator Paula Bush, who made this her master’s topic, the sociologist established a customized exercise program for students at the Saint Germain School in Saint Laurent. Following discussions with the study subjects in this very cosmopolitan neighbourhood, they were invited to set up hip hop, African dance and kung fu courses along with other activities they’d never even heard of. “Do you know what Capoeira or PlayStation dancing is? Neither did we.”

Popular among Latin Americans, Capoeira is a martial art invented by African slaves in Brazil. It’s a fusion of dance and fighting, including high kicks, acrobatic moves and choreography. As for ‘PlayStation,’ it involves following a set of rhythmical steps on a lit platform—indicated by a video console—to disco music. The action-research involved selecting a disadvantaged school, where researchers could find a significant number of young students whose progress could be monitored over four and a half months. The principal of Saint Germain, Louise Chénard (an UdeM physical education graduate) and the school’s two physical education teachers agreed to participate. “This is an ideal situation because the school has about 400 students, half in Grade 7 and the other half in Grade 8. This gives us a control group on which we can base our comparisons,” explained Prof. Laberge.

The 140 participants, who are between the ages of 13 and 14 and had to obtain their parents’ approval to participate in the study, first answered a detailed questionnaire on their daily habits (physical activity, diet, smoking, sleep, etc.) and then completed tests that measured five targeted learning conditions (attention/concentration, social skills, self-esteem, self-control and class environment). The researchers took this opportunity to find out which sports the students preferred and use that information to have the children feel more integrated in the process.

School performance, as evaluated in the students’ report cards, will be compared before and after the study period, but this will not be the only element considered. The scientific literature indicates that exercise improves elements of personality such as self-esteem, emotional stability, attention and concentration, consequently these variables were also included in the questionnaire.



Suzanne Laberge



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