Learning is like interval training

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Just like any exercise, learning can’t go full blast all the time. Interval training in sports and fitness is highly effective for developing endurance and ability. It’s the same for learning. Do short high intensity workouts. Then, rest with lower intensity activities in between. 

Think about these cycles like chances to breathe in and breathe out. Children need a rhythm when learning. Bursts of learning occur where they breathe in, focus, and absorb. Then they need to have periods of breathing out and easing up. 

Some children can tolerate longer and longer periods of high intensity (breathing in) learning. This is okay … to a point. Don’t exhaust them after the first bit of high intensity learning. Keep it short. There’s more to come and you want to keep them positive about the activities. 

For the warm-up, present an idea or concept. Once the child warms up to the idea, the first interval can begin. The high intensity (breathing in) segment is relatively brief. You’ll come back to it again in another cycle.

Use this simple rule: total learning time with a child is no more than twice their age. For a two to three year old, that means your teaching/learning times are four to five minutes. But for a 10 year old, total learning time within a cycle is 20 minutes. Within that time, about one-quarter is for high intensity activities and the rest is for lower intensity activities. This is the exact ratio used with interval training for sports – in a four minute period, one minute is used in high intensity training and three minutes are for lighter intensity.

So how does this look for teaching children? Have a look at the table below. You can see that each “Total learning time” is two times each child’s age. Within that time, one-quarter of the time is high intensity (new) learning. This is when you introduce a new activity or concept and try it out. Then you back off for three-quarters of the total time to do an activity that requires less intense thinking and focus. It may be a practice session for the concept you introduced. If you incorporate the child’s special interest

s, it’ll feel more like a ‘breathing-out’ break. It can also be a complete down time where you just relax and do some Turtle Breathing. This choice depends on the child and the concept you’re introducing.

Some children may not want to to start a practice session. If you show them on a timer how short the practice session will be they might be more willing to try. Show them they’ll work hard for X number of minutes (say, four minutes for an eight year old). That’ll help them feel that an end is in sight and i won’t be long. 

As with interval training, this cycle can be repeated up to four times. It takes time to build this up, though. For the first few times, do just one cycle (Total learning time for the age group). As your child becomes a stronger learner, you can introduce up to four repeats of the cycle.

Use this model in teaching and practicing self-regulation skills, as well as other things. If your child has homework from school, make sure your sessions are no more than the total learning time for their age. Break that up into one-quarter high intensity work where they have to concentrate and think hard. Then have intervals for three-quarters of the time where lighter intensity is needed. You could have your child do another part of the homework that’s ‘easy’ for them. It might also be a break to do something your child enjoys.

By using this interval training model, you’ll find children are more willing to try new things. They also solidify their learning. This is because they’re not being exhausted by practice. Think of yourself during exercise; it’s easier to commit to more strenuous exercise for a minute or two, knowing it’ll be short and will be followed by a release. 


Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

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