Brain breaks: What they are and why kids need them

By Sarah Pryor December 3, 2020

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Long hours in front of the computer can take a toll on our eyes, muscles, and attention span — and it’s even worse for young kids who now find themselves attending school virtually. "One great way to mitigate these issues is frequent brain breaks, a few minutes away from the screen each hour to reset the mind and get the blood pumping," said Dr. Anitha Leonard with Atrium Health Levine Children’s Arboretum Pediatrics.

“Every hour they need a brain break, even if it’s just five or 10 minutes,” Dr. Leonard says. “We’re seeing issues like back pain, shoulder, neck, and muscle aches, all because it’s different from what kids have been doing at school.” Middle and high schoolers, for example, have naturally occurring breaks during their in-person school days when they walk between classes or head to their locker to get books. But at home, these quick walks might be replaced by hours sitting in their virtual classroom.

Step away from the screen

When your child is taking a “brain break,” that doesn’t mean switching from their school screen to playing a game or scrolling social media on their phones. Dr. Leonard says kids should physically walk away from the screen and go do something else — ideally something physical. If there’s time, they could run outside and do a quick but fun physical activity like basketball. Or if they’re short on time, have kids do sit-ups, squats, lunges from one side of the room to the other or even dance to two full songs.

She suggests setting a timer for breaks to make sure kids get back to their virtual class on time. Another of Dr. Leonard’s favorite uses for brain breaks: knocking out daily chores. “They could take out the trash, check the mail or even take the five to seven minutes to put their laundry away,” Dr. Leonard says. “Even that is enough of a break. But you’ll have to build it in and be firm.”

If kids get a break during their last class before lunch, Dr. Leonard suggests having kids help get their meal prepared so they’ll be able to eat as soon as their group breaks for lunch. Most teachers build brain breaks into their virtual lesson plans, but if your kids seem to be sitting at the screen all day with very few chances to step away, it might be time to contact your child’s teacher.

Brain break before bed

For Dr. Leonard, perhaps the most important brain break is before bedtime. She says the stimulating blue light that comes from tablets and laptops can prevent kids from falling asleep. “Looking at your phone is stimulating and you do not need to be stimulated before bed,” Dr. Leonard says.

Kids should cease looking at all screens at least an hour — preferably two hours — before bedtime. This may not be popular with teenagers, but it will help them achieve deeper, sounder sleep in the long run. Armed with these strategies parents can feel empowered to support their children as they continue to navigate virtual learning. If you have other questions or concerns about your child’s virtual classroom time, contact your pediatrician.

Dr. Leonard is a pediatrician at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Arboretum Pediatrics. She did her residency at Emory University’s Medical School after attending Eastern Carolina University’s School of Medicine. She’s married with two teenagers. In her spare time, she enjoys ballroom dancing and even participated in Charlotte’s Dancing With The Stars benefitting Carolina Breast Friends and the Pink House.

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