There wasn’t a whisper of conversation among Kari Burkett’s fifth-graders as they walked a mile around the grounds of Aurora’s Kenton Elementary School on a recent sunny morning. Just the sound of footfalls and the caw of birds flying overhead.

The students, all equipped with small black listening devices and earphones, were absorbed in a recording about trickster characters like Br’er Rabbit. The walk-and-listen routine happens once or twice a week in Burkett’s classroom.

Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. She bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded content from the Internet.
Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. At first, she bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded Internet content.

It’s part of The Walking Classroom, a four-year-old program based in Chapel Hill, NC, that allows students to get exercise while they listen to standards-aligned podcasts on language arts, history and science. In an era when many teachers feel overwhelmed by the push for better test scores and health advocates regularly sound the alarm on childhood obesity, The Walking Classroom attempts to address both problems.

All told, more than 30 fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in 20 Colorado schools, from the Denver area up to Loveland, participate in the program. Many of the schools have large populations of low-income students or English-language learners.

Normally, a classroom set of Walking Classroom materials, including listening devices called WalkKits, costs $3,000, but sponsors like Kaiser Permanente Colorado allow many schools to participate for free. Burkett said the audio lesson, which correlate particularly well with her writing lessons, give students new ways to learn and reinforce academic content.

“I have a variety of learners, a variety of different language-learners…it’s an opportunity to do something different instead of just listening to me,” she said. “[They’re] able to connect a little bit more to what we’re learning in class.”

Program co-founder Laura Fenn, who visited Kenton and other participating Colorado schools last week, emphasized the link between exercise and attention.

The Walking Classroom

  • Launched: 2011
  • Used in: 46 states, including in more than 30 Colorado classrooms in 20 schools
  • Not to be used during: Physical education class or recess
  • 2014-15 Kaiser Permanente Colorado sponsorship: $95,000 for 21 classroom sets
  • More information: thewalkingclassroom.org

“We hear over and over again that the kids come back [from Walking Classroom sessions] and they’re more focused, they’re more productive and they’ve gotten some exercise,” she said.

The positive effect of exercise on the brain is something Carla Witt, a Kaiser Permanente doctor who also visited Kenton last week, said is clearly visible in magnetoencephalagrams, or pictures of the brain.

“When you have someone who’s been sitting…they’re recruiting just a fraction of their brain,” she said. “When you have them walk like this and now you take a picture of their brain…they’re recruiting substantially more.”

Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.
Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.

In their own way, students also seem to notice a difference.

Ten-year-old Katherine Sanchez said she likes The Walking Classroom “because I get to exercise and when I come to learn I get the questions that the teacher asks right.”

Burkett and another teacher at Kenton adopted The Walking Classroom last year after the school got two classroom sets of the WalkKits through a Kaiser sponsorship. At first, she wasn’t sure how the program would work.

“There’s so many assessments and we have a pretty rigorous schedule.”

Nevertheless, she set aside 15-20 minutes for The Walking Classroom every Friday, and sometimes other days of the week. She assigned a leader and a caboose and students soon got used to strolling around the playground while listening to lessons on everything from similes to famous poems.

“If we don’t get to do it every week they get pretty disappointed,” said Burkett.