Workout mats carpet the floor, diagrams of exercises cover the walls and sweaty bodies move in unison as a coach pushes members of the group to “show their best.”
No, this is not your trendy local yoga class. It is Midway Heights Elementary School.
The bodies here are all under 4 feet tall, the diagrams on the wall show cartoon gorillas performing stretches and the workout mats are surrounded by miniature trampolines.
This youthful space is not a traditional gym. It is a motor lab — a space for students to exercise their brains and bodies while improving their sensory development skills.
Four years ago, Midway Heights was the first public school in Columbia to successfully implement a motor lab on its campus. Since then, five other elementary schools have followed Midway Heights’ example. New Haven Elementary is the latest, launching a motor lab program this year.
The labs address a growing problem among elementary students: Young children are spending more time on sedentary activities rather than physical movement, and their classroom time is overloaded with so much curriculum that they no longer have time to practice simple activities like holding a pencil or using scissors.
School officials say this prevents students from learning basic muscle control, which can lead to behaviors like falling out of chairs or not being able to sit still in class.
“This is all stuff they need to work on because they didn’t grow up outside playing and doing all the motor activities we did as kids,” said Angie Gerzen, Midway Heights principal.
The district does not currently use any official testing or tracking techniques to monitor student growth, but the progress is noticeable by simply observing the students as the year progresses, said Patty Cornell, the district’s coordinator for physical education and health.
Cornell shared an example of a Russell Elementary School student whose teachers decided he should enter the adapted physical education program. After a month of using the motor lab, he was no longer qualified.
“Isn’t that cool?” she asked, a smile on her face. “Really what makes it work is the teachers. The teachers see the value.”
At Midway Heights, physical education teacher Kelli Richardson and a team of teachers organize the motor lab exercises each week. They keep all teachers in the building involved by sending them weekly emails outlining new activities in the lab. They explain what the exercise is, how the students will benefit from it and how to best teach the exercise, Richardson said. At all six labs in the district, it is an expectation that classroom teachers join their students for lab time. They are also encouraged to implement the exercises taught in lab in their own daily classroom routines.
The activities are always changing so students do not get bored, Richardson said. Once the motor lab team leader recognizes that the majority of the class has become proficient in an activity, she will swap it out for a new activity from the predesigned “Ready Bodies, Learning Minds” curriculum or reorganize the order of the stations.
At Midway Heights, kindergarten and first-grade students visit the lab every day. Second- and third-grade students visit two to three days each week during the morning. The lab is designed to handle up to 24 students at a time, with 12 stations set up to accommodate two students at once. Students move through the stations as teachers set a timer for each exercise.
Visits to the lab last 20 to 30 minutes, depending on that day’s class schedule, Richardson said. As the year goes on and students become more familiar with the lab and exercises, the visits become shorter and more efficient.
“It’s just that muscle memory. You want to get that. At the beginning of the year, it goes very slowly because the kindergarteners have to get used to it. But then once it gets going, kids understand how it works,” Gerzen said.
Lab time is in addition to regularly scheduled physical education classes and recess, but students know the expectations in the motor lab are stricter than “playtime.”
“It’s purposeful, and it’s supposed to be quiet,” Cornell said. “We treat (the labs) like a classroom. (Students) are actually working towards a goal.”
For students, the lab does not feel like normal classwork.
“My (favorite part) is probably the trampolines because you get to bounce,” Midway Heights first-grader James Twenter said. “My mom won’t let me get a trampoline, but I would like mini-trampolines like these.”
Cornell says every elementary school principal in the district knows it is an option to implement a lab in their school. However, especially in bigger schools, scheduling and space can be large constraints to implementation.
For any Columbia schools that want to offer students a lab in the future, Cornell said she is ready to visit their campus, talk with them and provide them with the money and resources they need to get started.
“All PE teachers went through perceptual motor training, so this is not new,” she said. “I just think as educators, we have to look and see what kids need now that they maybe didn’t need 10 years ago. We are stepping up and giving them what they need.”