The Science of Brain Breaks
Let’s admit it: from time to time, we all lose momentary focus on our work or studies, and our minds or hands start to wander. Whether its due to stress, lack of sleep or just plain boredom, our brains yearn to take a break. Fortunately, this is both healthy and natural—for adults and young learners alike, our brains need frequent rest stops to keep us motivated, store new memories, and to help our workload feel manageable. By redirecting distractions or off-task behavior into short, engaging activities, regular brain breaks have numerous and measurable benefits both at home and in the classroom.
For those students who have begun working with algebra, we can begin by assigning abstract variables to each object and constructing equations for each diagram:
Although it may seem counterintuitive, scheduling frequent breaks within a lesson or study period has been shown to boost focus and productivity for young learners. In 2016, one study found that on average, elementary students spend up to 15 minutes of a one-hour lesson distracted or otherwise performing off-task behavior—that’s 25 percent! However, the study also discovered that this number could be significantly reduced by splitting the same one-hour period into two or three pieces, punctuated by short brain breaks. Because the productivity of young minds naturally begins to decline after ten to twenty minutes, brain breaks help students find a healthy and balanced rhythm to their studies by resetting their internal productivity clock at regular intervals.
Get Creative, Get Physical
Just to be clear—a brain break isn’t just free time, as not all activities will produce this “resetting” effect. Although it might feel relaxing, scrolling through social media or watching videos can actually negatively affect the brain’s natural productivity rhythms, and can leave us feeling overstimulated, stressed or disconnected from our studies. Ideally, students should use their brain breaks to do something creative, physical or otherwise mentally engaging; short drawing or colouring exercises can help refresh the imagination, and breathing exercises or jumping jacks can increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Ultimately, the perfect brain break activity will strike a balance between giving the mind a chance to breathe while keeping the wheels turning enough to launch into the next exercise.
Improved Long-Term Memory
The brain has a natural tendency to wander, especially after processing new information. Spacing out, doodling, fiddling—these are all signs that a young learner’s brain has maxed out its capacity for the moment, and that it is currently in the process of bundling and saving said information for long-term storage. One psychological study conducted in 2012, which terms this “constructive internal reflection,” or “default mode”, shows that even when idle, the brain is actively reflecting upon what it just learned and reprogramming itself accordingly. Taking a brain break is therefore not only an opportunity to switch up activities—it is the brain’s natural way of making new memories that stick.
Reducing Stress and Anxiety
Brain breaks also have the added benefit of reducing stress for young learners and combating math anxiety. One major cause of stress on the brain is a sense of being overwhelmed or overworked, especially if there is no visible end in sight. Instead of feeling daunted or discouraged with an hour or more of hard work ahead of them, breaking up learning time into manageable chunks can set a student’s mind at ease and give their brains a short moment to recharge after processing a difficult assignment. When combined with a well-structured lesson plan, frequent breaks are essential to maintaining a focused and stress-free environment in the classroom, and teaches young learners valuable time management skills that they can incorporate into their own study routines.
Motivation and Self-Esteem
Beyond their strictly educational benefits, brain breaks also lighten the mood of the classroom, keeping students motivated and enthusiastic about their studies. Because physical and creative activities help our bodies replenish neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, brain breaks can help students associate their lessons and studies with fun and excitement, rather than sources of anxiety or boredom. This effect may be amplified further in group learning environments, where students can use their brain breaks to build social skills and meet new friends and classmates. By giving students the space to express themselves alongside their academic work, brain breaks develop confidence, community and healthy learning habits.
This article was written by one of Aspire Learning Academy’s very own instructor, Daniel Marcotte.