Nashua teacher builds active classroom

Courtesy photo A student reads while using the spin bike in Jim Hansen’s class at New Searles Elementary School.

NASHUA – Fifth-grade teacher and avid bicyclist Jim Hansen discovered many of his best ideas while on his bike – and he now hopes his students will follow suit.

Walk into his classroom at New Searles Elementary School at any given time and visitors will find students working hard– but maybe not at their desks. His room features a child-sized spin bike, standing desks, balance boards and bouncy bands under their desks; various ways to keep the kids moving throughout the day.

While it is important to make sure students get enough physical activity, these modifications to his classroom are not for exercise, but self-regulation, helping the students calm down when they feel stressed.

When on the bike, sometimes only for five minutes at a time, the students are usually just pedaling slowly, using the opportunity to move their bodies, change position and quite literally, work it out.

“Some people think this is just for the ADHD boys,” he said, noting that in many cases, the opposite is true. In his 36 years of teaching, Hansen has found that often, the quiet, well-behaved and hardest working students often feel the most stress.

“Kids are coming to school now and they’re highly stressed out,” he said. “Anxiety and depression are really common in kids, but it’s not talked about … they are more sensitive to the world than their brains and bodies are ready for.”

Hansen can’t take that stress away, he said, but he can help them learn to manage it.

In a recent survey, one student wrote:

“I have math anxiety, so when we take a test, I usually get very nervous. When I am stuck on a problem in a math test and am very frustrated or nervous, I go on the spin bike. This helps me calm down. Sometimes, I pedal fast which gets the frustration out of me. Other times, I pedal slow and think about other things besides math. Both of these help me very much. I ride the bike for five minutes only and then go back to my math test. After my rides on the bike, I feel more focused and ready to attempt the hard math problem.”

The idea for the bike was inspired by Luke MacDonald, a friend who has helped put thousands of the spin bikes in classrooms across Canada. This initiative has not taken off in the U.S. with as much fervor, Hansen said, but he hopes it will. He has had the $600 bike in his classroom since 2014 after a successful DonorsChoose campaign, a fundraising website that Nashua teachers use to raise money for classroom supplies. Since then, New Searles has added two of the same bikes, which rotate among the several classrooms.

It is not just the bike that helps students though, as Hansen said math games that get the kids up and moving. The bouncy bands under the desks help students take out nervous energy without being a distraction, much like when someone nervously bounces a leg.

During the survey, another student wrote that “when my legs move around, it gets me active and ready to learn and if I go into another classroom that doesn’t have bouncy bands, then I don’t focus as much.” The balance boards let the kids “stand and wiggle,” Hansen said, and many of them use them at the same time as the standing desks in the back of the classroom.

At the end of every day, Hansen tries to ride his own bike for at least an hour to reflect on his day and come up with other creative ideas for his classroom.

“Moving can promote thinking,” he said, adding he hopes moving in the classroom will help kids foster their own ideas for exercise at home.

“It’s one small part you can play,” Hansen said. “If it works, then it was worth all the money.”