Elementary Cross-Curricular Activities – Learning by Doing

Brain Building in Progress SignWhat is the best way to support student learning taking place in the regular classroom? Add some cross-curricular activities to your PE lessons, of course! By reinforcing math concepts, spelling, vocabulary, geography, science and other curricular content in the gym, you are providing students with another avenue to “learn” the material. By combining these academic subjects with movement, we can reach all those “kinesthetic learners” in way that the traditional educational process may otherwise miss. Let’s take a quick look at the brain-body connection and then I’ll share a few different cross-curricular activities that I’ve used with my students.

The Brain-Body Connection

There are volumes of research out there that support the brain-body connection. We know that exercise increases circulation to brain, it increases connections between neurons in the brain, it increases the release of neurotransmitters, and increases the release of neurotrophic factors (BDNF) among the most notable benefits. When the brain chemistry is activated through movement, we are primed to learn and retain information better than if we were seated in a desk. As the saying goes, “If the bum is numb, the brain is the same.”

Active Kids Learn Better Infographic

Stroop Test

Still skeptical?  Try this activity as an experiment with your students and compare the results of your pre- & post-tests.  PE teacher, Jo Bailey from Wausau, Wisconsin created this assignment for her high school students to demonstrate the impact that activity has on the brain.  She had her students take the Stroop Test at the beginning of class, then engage in physical activity, then take it again at the end of class.  Jo’s assignment can be found here, and the link to the actual test and scoring rubric is included on the top of the assignment.  You can also view it separately here.  Check out Becky Foellmer’s post about the Stroop Test here.

Math Cross-Curricular Activities in Physical Education Ideas ContinuedPhysical Education and Academic Standards and/or Common Core

Preparing students for the 21st century requires all teachers from all subject areas to examine their teaching practices and take a more multidisciplinary approach to learning.  Teaching Physical Education is the ONLY content area that educates students in all three of the learning domains – the cognitive, the affective, and the psychomotor.  Teaching motor skills, cognitive concepts and social skills should be the foundation for every quality program.  If, within that teaching, you can incorporate academic content (literacy & numeracy) without compromising the quality of your lesson, then it can be a welcome addition to bolster student learning.

There are dozens of ways that we can incorporate academic knowledge into a dynamic physical setting.  Look at this graphic by Pete Charrette (aka Capt. Pete) which provide clear examples of how the things we can do in the gym or on the field relate to academic math content and can help extend learning from their classrooms.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Like anything, before you go jumping in headfirst, be aware of some of the common pitfalls with using cross-curricular activities.  I would suggest you make sure your use of these types of activities have a clear purpose and are integrated as part of your regularly planned lesson and/or unit.  I’ve seen too many teachers wanting to incorporate cross-curricular content to gain approval from an administrator on observation day.  Or perhaps, they want to “validate” their teaching and see cross-curricular activities as a way to do that.

There is a time and place to use them, however, they should not become the main source of activity for your students.  Use them as a supplemental activity to help reinforce the physical skills/concepts that you’re already working on in class.  Remember that sometimes these types of activities aren’t always feasible due to space, large class sizes, equipment, or any number of other factors.  There is so much physical education content to deliver in a given school year that just throwing in some cross-curricular activity “just because” isn’t truly best practice.

Cross-Curricular PE Resources

Here are a few cross-curricular activities and games that I’ve compiled, with the help of other teachers:

Math Concepts

  • Magic Number Dribble Addition – a multi-number addition activity incorporating hand dribbling.
    • Set-Up: students divide up into 6 groups and go stand in a line at a hula hoop. Each group gets one ball. Numbered poly spots are spread out (number side up) in the center of the playing area.
    • Game Play: teacher calls out a “magic number” for the round.  This is the number that groups are trying to create by adding the numbered poly spots together. Groups must use a minimum of 3 poly spots that add up to the magic number. When the music starts, the first student from each group dribbles out to the center area, picks up one spot, dribbles back to their group, gives the ball to the next student and places the numbered spot in the hoop. Play continues in this fashion until the group has at least 3 spots that (when added together) equal the magic number. See the full printable activity guide here.

Money

  • Bowling for Dollars – bowling activity using money as a reward for knocking down pins.
    • Set Up: 3-4 students per lane.  Set up 10 pins & 1 ball per group.  Each group starts with a scorecard.
    • Game Play:  Students take turns rotating through the different positions. When they bowl, they get two shots. The total number of pins they knock down is the number they find on the “score card”.  The object of the game is to earn as much money as they can during the activity time.
  • Uber Driver – cooperative scooter activity incorporating counting money by Tanner Roos
  • Toy Box – a partner throwing/catching activity where students earn a dollar for making 5 consecutive catches. After a partner group earns $5.00, they put the ball they were throwing into their hoop (Toy Box) and trade in their money to get a new piece of equipment to play catch with.  Check out the video by Ben Pirillo.
  • Run for the Money by Gopher – features activity instructions for multiple money counting games that keep students moving.

Spelling and Language Literacy

  • ABC Soccer – a foot dribbling activity incorporating spelling and vocabulary
    • Set Up: Students scattered in personal space with a ball.  Lettered poly spots scattered around the playing area.
    • Game Play: On the signal, students dribble with their feet around the gym to guide their ball to touch the letters that spell a given word.  Use PE vocabulary, spelling lists from the classroom teacher, or reading sight words. Also try having students spell their name or find all 26 letters of the alphabet in ABC order.
  • Quarterback Scrabble – a throwing & catching activity by Mike Ginicola
  • Dribble Spelling – a hand dribbling and spelling activity by Ross Chakrian
  • Password – a basketball passing and spelling activity by Mike Bohannan

Be sure to check out some of my other favorite sources for awesome cross-curricular activities!

What cross-curricular activities do you use in your physical education classes? Share below in the comments!

A passionate presenter and teacher, Mike Graham has taught Physical Education since 1996 and currently works at Williamsburg Elementary School in Geneva, Illinois. In addition to teaching full time, he coaches wrestling and serves on the Advisory Board for Gopher Sport. Mike uses his experience & knowledge to further his professional State organization (IAHPERD) as a member of the Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment committee, the social media committee, the technology committee, a co-moderator of the bi-monthy #iahperdchat on Twitter, and he is the current President of the Northern District of IAHPERD. You can connect with Mike and find out more about his #PhysEd program on his website, www.pe4everykid.weebly.com, or connect with him directly on Twitter @pe4everykid or Voxer at mikegraham.

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