The Magic of Active Mornings

Want better behavior in school? Make sure kids play actively before school.

Kids running in school gym
Alistair Berg / The Image Bank / Getty Images

What can you do to make sure that your child pays attention in school, retains what he learns, follows directions, and works well with his classmates? It's easy: Have him play actively in the morning, before school starts, with his peers. That physical activity is beneficial to his growing body, building and strengthening muscles, bones, heart, and lungs. But it also gives his brain a boost, right when he needs it most—as the school day begins.

When kids enjoy exercise play in the mornings, "it gives them opportunity to get energy out, calms them down, and readies them to be attentive and learn," says Ewunike Akpan, a personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise. She's also the associate manager for the mid-Atlantic region for BOKS (Build Our Kids' Success), a school-based fitness program for elementary and middle school kids. It's free (thanks to support from Reebok and the Reebok Foundation) and has close to 2,000 schools enrolled.

Akpan says the behavior changes that she sees are striking. "Students who were typically identified as troublemakers are now identified as leaders," she says. "Teachers resoundingly say that the students who are known for being disruptive in class, really vying for attention at inappropriate times," start to thrive when they participate in BOKS.

How to Add Active Play to Your Morning

The BOKS program is simple.

Kids meet at school about an hour before the bell rings. Under the supervision of a trained adult, they play for about 45 minutes, grab breakfast and then head to class ready to learn. "We engage them in activities that last no more than ten minutes each," says Akpan. "After that, their heart rate is up enough to benefit, we move on to another activity, so kids get four to five activities in a 45-minute class." Games are fun, easy to play, and often running-related because that gives kids great cardio with no prep or props needed.

Kids also benefit from the group atmosphere. "Our program incorporates all of the age groups and grades together in one class, which is unusual," says Akpan. "It's specifically designed to be safe for mixed ages. Kids spend most of their life in school, and that’s where socialization and leadership opportunities need to happen."

To replicate this magic for your own kid and her schoolmates, you can bring BOKS to your school (remember, it's free), or start your own formal or informal program. (Read about one school's "Family Fitness Friday" sessions.) At my children's elementary school, the playground is supervised for 25 minutes before school begins in the morning, and many kids play their own fast-paced, complex version of tag every single day. If you just play with your own child before school, you will very likely find that other kids join in.

Plus, walking, biking, or scootering to school gives kids many of the same academic and behavioral benefits. So don't overlook that as an a.m. exercise option.

If it's not safe or feasible to walk to school, play at home before you go, or get to school early and play there.


Sattelmair J, Ratey J. Physically active play and cognition: An academic matter. American Journal of Play Vol. 1 No.3, winter 2009.

National Institute on Out-of-School Time, Wellesley College. BOKS Natick Multiyear Research Study – Year 3. January 16, 2015.

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