Start Early. Start well.

March 09, 2023

Helping Kids Get the Wiggles Out: UNO Graduate Scholar Studying How to Increase Physical Activity in Early Childhood Classrooms

Kids jumping around in classWith more than 75% of school-aged children in the United States failing to get enough physical activity in each day, UNO doctoral student JP Rech is studying the effectiveness of interventions that promote physical activity in preschool to third grade classrooms.

By Erin Duffy

As a college student in Kearney, JP Rech led a physical education program for preschoolers. He knows firsthand that kids in the 3- to 6-year-old age range can be high-energy and rambunctious. 

But while parents and educators might assume that younger children are blowing off plenty of energy by running around and playing, the hard truth is that most are not active enough, said Rech, now a doctoral student in the School of Health and Kinesiology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The allure of TV and tablet screens and the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other factors, have led to less-active kids. 

“This is an age where they’re really supposed to be exploring and learning through interactions with different environmental factors and those around them,” Rech said. “We kind of think that’s what they like to do, especially in those free play moments. However, sedentary play types have really taken over at this age.” 

More than 75% of school-aged children in the United States don’t meet the recommended guidelines of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, according to the Physical Activity Alliance. 

As a 2022–23 Graduate Scholar at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, Rech is studying the effectiveness of interventions that promote physical activity in preschool to third grade classrooms. He’s specifically looking at the cultural responsiveness of those interventions and how they impact students of different races, ethnicities, or socioeconomic backgrounds. 

J.P. RechJP Rech

The application period for the next round of Graduate Scholars funding is now open to doctoral students within the University of Nebraska System. Applications are due March 31. The one-year fellowship, worth up to $25,000, supports research related to the development, education, and well-being of young children, prenatal to 8 years old.  

Learn more about the program and eligibility requirements
“The Graduate Scholars program is an invaluable program for students in the University of Nebraska system,” said Danae Dinkel, an associate professor in the School of Health and Kinesiology at UNO and Rech’s faculty mentor. “It allows students to pursue both traditional and nontraditional research in early childhood that they may not have been provided the opportunity to pursue.” 

Rech said the Buffett Institute’s close relationships with communities and early educators throughout Nebraska “make it even more possible to get my research findings into the hands of early childhood professionals.” 

Rech is conducting a review and analysis of data from 2006, when federally mandated school wellness policies kicked in, to present. He’s looking at physical activity levels and associated outcomes for kids in preschool through third grade and trying to spot trends based on student demographics. One study from 2017 found that Black adolescent girls engaged in more physical activity when teachers encouraged them to move more and gave them opportunities to do so.  

His research is focusing on what children do in their primary classrooms, not gym class. 

That could include so-called “brain breaks”—stretches or brief activities that give children a chance to stand up and get the wiggles out—dancing, or lessons that get students out of their seats and using their bodies. Rech has taught student teachers how to integrate movement into their lessons, like having students build a clock out of their bodies while learning how to tell time. Activities that appeal to students based on their background or culture can pique their interest and make them more likely to engage. 

Through his project, Rech hopes to identify activities that work within classrooms and help teachers see the value of more physical activity. Teachers may struggle to fit in movement breaks with curriculum demands or worry that kids will get overstimulated if they start playing or dancing. 

“Teachers often report they don’t want to do physical activity in a classroom because of behavioral issues that might arise,” Rech said. “But if you make a young child … sit all day, it’s going to result in behavior issues.” 

Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.  
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at   

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