Skip to content

Ways to remove barriers to movement at school

From movement breaks during lessons to working with the wider community, we share tips on encouraging more physical activity in schools and colleges to improve mental health and wellbeing.


Mental Health Awareness Week – which is organised by the Mental Health Foundation - kicks off today and 2024’s theme is ‘Movement: moving more for our mental health.’

There is a wealth of research that links exercise with improved mental health and wellbeing. We know movement can protect and build our mental wellbeing, boost our mood, and help us to look after our health.

From speaking to education professionals every day, we hear that the most physically active schools and colleges are the ones that embed movement into their culture. As outlined in our Thinking differently manifesto, we want to see this thinking expanded across the UK, with the creation of a more inclusive school system that values social, emotional and physical development, as well as academic achievement.

We’ve collated some of our favourite tips to help children, young people and staff move more at school. You can find more in our new toolkits - one for primary schools, one for secondary schools and FE settings - full of resources for students and staff for Mental Health Awareness Week 2024.

Carve wellbeing into the curriculum

Building psychoeducation - which involves learning about and understanding mental health and wellbeing - into lessons is a great starting point. Look for opportunities across the curriculum to educate students on the links between physical activity and mental wellness, from PE and personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, to biology and food technology. Understanding the holistic benefits of movement can build a healthy foundation for an active lifestyle.

Change the narrative... and have fun

Exercise might have negative connotations for some children and young people. For some, it equals pain and punishment, for others it’s associated with unrealistic beauty standards or feelings of failure. By shifting the focus away from how exercise makes you look to how it makes you feel, and from stressing the importance of winning to emphasising enjoyment, school staff can build more positive narratives.

Finding ways to make movement fun is key. Variety is the spice of life, and offering students different activities will help them find what they enjoy while keeping things fresh. Plus, there are plenty of interesting options – such as Zumba or martial arts - that don’t require expensive equipment.

Limber up lessons

Adapting lessons to incorporate more movement can not only make them more novel and enjoyable, but also keep students alert. For example, carousel-style activities will get the class moving around and engaged with new tasks. Where possible, making use of alternative spaces – such as the playground or school hall – will add a new dimension to learning and get pupils up and about too. It’s a great idea to establish a culture of taking movement breaks during lessons, which also helps with post-lunchtime slumps!

Practice participation

Children and young people are more likely to engage with exercise if it’s something they’re interested in. Asking students for ideas on physical activities, for example, through a vote or suggestion box, will give them the opportunity to make their voices heard.

As part of this, listen to and consider their unique barriers to exercise, including physical, cultural or psychological factors. For example, the smell or lighting in a particular room could impact neurodivergent students, or there might be a lack of adapted equipment for those with physical disabilities. Understanding their needs and making reasonable adjustments will help ensure activities are as inclusive as possible. This could be regularly airing out school gyms or dimming harsh lighting, or investing in kit like lifts, ramps and acoustic tiling to improve accessibility.

Care for staff

We know a whole school or college approach to mental wellbeing is vital for helping children and young people to thrive. Prioritising the mental health and wellbeing of staff is a central part of this.

Many schools and colleges offer staff group exercise sessions such as morning walks, jogs and yoga. Education leaders could also encourage staff to hold walking one-to-one meetings and signpost them to activities in the local area. Staff are also important role models for students, so having an active lifestyle could create positive ripples throughout the school.

Beyond the school gates

Engaging with the wider community can create great opportunities for movement. For instance, many areas offer walking bus programmes, which encourage parent and carer volunteers to walk children to school along a set route.

Schools and colleges can also tap into relationships with local supermarkets and leisure centres, who often offer discounts or vouchers as incentives for exercising. Leaders can also offer space on site to local clubs outside of the school day, bringing opportunities for exercise closer to students and their families.

Find out more

Anna Freud is a mental health charity and we’ve been supporting children and young people for over 70 years.

We offer many more resources and training for schools and colleges such as Mentally Health Schools, which provides school staff, parents and carers information, advice and practical resources to better understand and promote pupils’ mental health and wellbeing. Another great resource is Schools in Mind, a free network for education professionals to share expertise about mental health and wellbeing.

Through our Thinking Differently manifesto, we’re also calling for mental health support for children and young people to have more community focus - find out why this matters by reading Naz’s story.