"Physical economics": Get students moving while they learn economics

A problem of epidemic proportions and economic consequences

In 2008, the incidence of obese adolescents (aged 12–19) had risen to 18 percent, up significantly from 5 percent in 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) website Childhood Obesity Facts. The CDC website notes that "schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors. Schools also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity behaviors."

To address the economic impact of obesity, the Atlanta Fed released two podcasts in February and March 2011. The first, titled "Ready to Work? The Long-Term Impact of Child Health on Economic Development ," features Dr. Jay Berkelhamer, past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and former senior vice president for medical affairs at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Dr. Berkelhamer notes that, these days, "children are less physically active. Recess and physical education have become condiments in the schools—many schools are not actually having them." He links childhood obesity with adult workforce productivity, pointing out that the healthy habits set in childhood "can have a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of our future workforce. The seeds of adult disease—such as cardiovascular problems, hypertension, cancer, diabetes—all begin in the years prior to the child entering the workplace."

The second Atlanta Fed podcast  also focuses on the societal and economic costs related to an individual's health. In "Healthy Workforce=Competitive Advantage," Dr. Rhonda Medows, chief medical officer and executive vice president for UnitedHealth Group's public sector programs, reports, "Employers have recognized the direct correlation of an employee's health, or the health status of their family members, and productivity, absenteeism." She continued, "The employer share of the health care premium that they contribute for their employees is rising as a reflection of chronic illnesses worsening or increasing."

Enlisting schools in the battle
Over the past few years, several programs, and even some state legislation, have grown up around the need to address the problem of childhood obesity. For example, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, an interagency initiative that came out of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" program, identified five areas of focus to help reduce the problem; one of these areas is physical activity.

Aligning with the CDC's statement that schools can play an important role in promoting healthy activities, and focusing on the area of physical activity, the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance took created the Let's Move in School program, which provides a comprehensive school physical activity plan.

Dance to the music, um, concepts
Some educators are using various strategies in their economics and personal finance classes to boost physical activity not only for the sake of the students' health but also for the added benefit of increasing their learning.

For example, in Nashville, two AP microeconomics teachers are using dance moves in their classrooms to help students remember the basics of supply, demand, equilibrium, elasticity, supply and demand curve shifters, price ceilings and floors, complements, substitutes, and various other economic concepts. Marty Robinson, Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, and Jennifer McKerley, Martin Luther King Academic Magnet High School, start by using their arms to demonstrate demand, for example. They move to supply, adding another arm movement. They then combine the two concepts by combining the arm movements, and continue adding new concepts and movements until they have a dance.

Robinson says, "Kids really respond to the dance. It's silly, but it helps on tests. I see students moving their arms to answer questions." McKerley says she sees students outside of class doing the dance, actually teaching it to their friends and family as they explain the accompanying economic concepts.

McKerley suggests to other teachers, "Choose your favorite dance tune, teach the dance, and have fun with it. If you are having fun, the students will too."

Make a game of it
Marlena Dixon, economics and personal finance teacher at Wilson Central High School in Lebanon, Tennessee, uses a variety of strategies for getting kids to move in her classroom. For example, during grading periods, she uses the incentive of physical activity instead of a food incentive to motivate her students. If the class meets their goal, students go outside to the football field and the track, where they can participate in a physical activity of their choice. Dixon said, "The only requirement on the incentive day is that everybody is doing some sort of activity where they are moving."

On an ongoing basis, Dixon implements the following strategies involving physical movement when she teaches personal finance, economics, and other subjects.

  • Four Corners: She labels the four corners of the room A, B, C, and D. She asks students a question with four possible answers. Students then move to the corner with the answer they have selected.
  • Opinion Polls: Dixon has students must move along an imaginary line depending on their agreement or disagreement with a statement she poses.
  • Brainstorming: Dixon places large pieces of paper around the room with a question or concept on each. Students must then move to each piece of paper and write a response or related question.
  • Collaborating Together: Rather than just having students work with others sitting beside them, Dixon often groups students with individuals whom they normally do not sit by, which allows them to move into new groups.

Hold a PE class: PE="physical economics"
Stephen Schumacher currently teaches physical education and will likely be teaching personal finance next year at Nashville School of Arts. For the personal finance course he will teach, Schumacher plans to use a beach ball imprinted with general and open-ended questions aligned with the Tennessee personal finance course standards. He will have the students stand in a circle and toss the ball to one another. When a student catches the ball, the student will answer the question nearest his or her right thumb. This is a strategy that Schumacher also uses in his physical education classes.

Not only will Schumacher be integrating physical education into personal finance, he is integrating personal finance career and life skills concepts into his physical education courses. At the start of the year, Schumacher has his students participate in what he considers to be a very important interview and life skill: hand shaking. He has students shake his hand, make eye contact, and exchange a greeting. He then provides individual feedback to assist students in improving this important skill. Schumacher says "It gets them standing and thinking."

Federal Reserve resources
Some of the Federal Reserve Banks provide resources for teaching economics and personal finance with movement to reinforce the lessons.

Related Links On Other Sites

By Jackie Morgan, senior economic and financial education specialist, Nashville Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
March 29, 2012