Creatively Blending Learning with Exercise

A big challenge for special education teachers is to integrate learning experiences with physical exercise. However, a Beaverton Oregon school district’s academic learning center teacher named Heather Gibbons has found a creative solution that works. She combines the use of an innovatively designed Pumper Car® ride-on vehicle with a variety of academic lessons. 

Gibbons works with young students at McKay Elementary who have a variety of neurodiverse and special needs. Conditions range from autism to Down syndrome. They all quickly engage with the rhythmic pumping and pulling motions—as well as the mobility—that’s characteristic of riding Pumper Car devices. This arm and leg motion provides upper and lower body exercise. 

For example, she has some of her students get to know “the rules of the road” when riding the vehicles. They learn to deal with intersections, make turns, use the brake, obey traffic signals, follow directions, read street signs, etc. Another activity has children ride to locations in the room or hallway to collect suction cup numbers or letters from walls. Then they use them in creative ways, like solving math problems or spelling words.  

Experiences with students  

Gibbons recounts an experience with a little boy: “I see imagination happening, too. When this child pulled a suction cup off the wall, he imagined it like a key for his car to allow him to go get the next one.” She says it’s clear that students like this boy are learning and retaining lessons through combined academic and exercise activities. 

There’s a girl who has various health issues affecting her coordination, balance, and weight. Gibbons has her riding a Pumper Car vehicle on a daily basis as part of a health routine that’s involved modifying her diet and increasing her physical activities. “This is one of her favorite activities. And after three months with this new regimen, the girl lost 12 pounds and decreased her risk of diabetes,” Gibbons notes. There has been improvement with her coordination and balance which may be associated with factors such as muscle strength and range of motion. Learning activities also are blended with mobility activities to add to the value of this creative approach. 

An activity for kids of all abilities 

Gibbons adds that although the Pumper Car vehicle is reserved only for her classes, traditionally developed students are allowed to ride it during Field Days and some recesses. It’s so popular that the students line up for the chance to ride it—perhaps a subtle way to promote inclusion when the students play together. 

In the future, special education teachers undoubtedly will devise new ways to combine learning experiences with physical exercise to support children with disabilities. Teachers like Gibbons hope that researchers will conduct studies on this topic to guide the development of standards for schools on this approach, not just for therapeutic purposes but also to foster inclusion.

Scroll to Top