More fit and more proficient at school – a new learning method

Children are less physically active and less proficient at school. Ass. Prof. Ester Hartman has tackled this challenge by developing a new learning method with a physically active approach for the language and maths classes.

The challenge

Young children in primary school already experience many hours where they sit still in daily life. While their heads are doing all the hard work their bodies are inactive. The majority of the children do not achieve the National guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day and their motor proficiency has decreased in the past 10 years. These developments place children at increased risk of developing overweight and an inactive lifestyle, leading to chronic diseases like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, depression and suboptimal cognitive functioning.

Besides the risks of physical inactivity, academic performance of primary school children has decreased over the past 10 years, placing them at risk of inadequate cognitive development and negative effects on their further school career and success on the job market.

The approach

At UMCGs SHARE institute in research programme Smart Movements, associate professor Esther Hartman and her team developed an innovative learning method for primary school children. To improve children’s health and academic performance, a physically active learning approach has been developed. Research shows there is link between children’s physical activity levels with their cognitive functions and school achievements (e.g. De Greeff et al., 2018; Haverkamp et al., 2020). This is way it is important to break the school day and alternate sedentary learning with physically active learning.

The outcome

The learning method entails a physically active approach for the language and maths classes. The approach is called “Fit and Academically Proficient at School” (“Fit & Vaardig op School”). A  large scale randomized controlled trial in 12 primary schools in 500 children showed that children involved in the programme are more physically active during classes and they pay more attention to their school tasks than children that followed the regular programme. On the long term, these children had a lower body mass index and reached learning gains of 4 months on mathematics and spelling (de Greeff et al., 2016; Mullender-Wijnsma et al., 2015; Mullender-Wijnsma et al., 2016). The learning method can be delivered by teachers with an app and a digital board in children aged 6-12.

Societal relevance and stakeholders

In order to facilitate the communication of the “Fit and Academically Proficient at School” learning method, an app has been developed that supports the communication from teachers to school classes for children in the age of 6 to 12. For teachers an online platform is available to offer support (in Dutch) ( “Fit and Academically Proficient at School” is currently being used in many primary schools in the Netherlands.

The Dutch Ministry of Education awarded the research proposal in 2011 with a grant. In 2016 the research was nominated for the Klokhuis Science award, a popular children’s television programme. In 2017 the Dutch Research Council (NWO) rewarded the research programme with an Award, both from the Scientific board and the Public board.

“Fit and Academically Proficient at School” has been incorporated in the advice to the Dutch Parliament (Tweede Kamer) in 2018. The approach received has received a lot of media attention. The partners involved provide (inter)national workshops and lectures for a scientific as well as a broad audience.

As a spin-off result of the research programme the Dutch Research Council and the Dutch “Hersenstichting” (Brain Foundation) granted two follow-up research projects: Learning by Moving and Move to Improve. In 2020 the Dutch Research Council granted a follow-up research project aimed at developing a physically active learning method in special needs education (“Fit en Vaardig in het Speciaal Basisonderwijs”).

The research at the base of the “Fit and Academically Proficient at School” learning method is the result of multi-layered collaborations between academics and non-academics partners.  The academic partners involved are UMCG (Human Movement Sciences), University of Groningen (Educational Sciences), and RuG Preventieversneller. The Knowledge partners we collaborate with in this project are HBO’s: Academic PABO, ALO’s, Sport Innovator Center Groningen, and Noordelijk Onderwijs Gilde (NOG) that provides training programs for teachers, assistants, and school managers, regular primary schools and schools for special needs education. Societal partners involved in the project are Stichting Onderwijs & Samenleven (Innovatie BV), Klare Koek (company that developed the app), and Sport Fryslan.