Why You Should Incorporate Movement Into Your Classroom

Getting students to sit still during class time can be a tall order. But what if having them move around could actually serve your lesson plans better?

That’s the theory behind movement-based education. Active lessons, like the “planet dances” Anne Green Gilbert writes about for Johns Hopkins, or experimental activities like the butter churning activity Aleta Margolis describes in The Washington Post, aren’t just a break from sitting still — they can be powerful tools to help students gain a deeper understanding about a topic and retain more information.

Just as music makes it easy to memorize lyrics, movements can help “map” information in our brain, making it easier to recall everything from punctuation meanings to the Pythagorean Theorem.

But that’s just one reason to get your students moving. Here are four others:

1. It shakes up classroom “hierarchies”

When students are sitting still in their assigned seats, social groupings start to form — the same few kids in the front of the class may raise their hands to answer questions, the same few students who sit in the back may shy away from participating.

But as Susan Griss writes in EdWeek, movement-based activities crack open routines and habits, and break up existing dynamics. Some kids may feel more comfortable with physical activities (answering questions “with their bodies” for example) than with verbal ones, so students who don’t normally get a chance to shine in question-and-answer sessions may get their big moment of success during physical activities.

Movement-based learning also makes consequences for “mistakes” feel less permanent. For example, in a non-traditional setting (like rotating activity stations), students may feel freer in attempting activities or answering questions. The risk of embarrassment is lower than it would be if students were sitting in their assigned seats in class.

2. Most kids aren’t moving enough as it is

The classroom approach to learning coupled with modern lifestyle issues (TV, Internet, and computer games are replacing outdoor recreational activities) may have brought about serious consequences for children’s motor skills, balance and spacial awareness.

Angela Hanscom writes of a classroom experiment in The Washington Post, “We quickly learned after further testing, that most of the children in the classroom had poor core strength and balance. In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared to children from the early 1980s, only one out of 12 children had normal strength and balance.”

Beyond the obvious physical repercussions of lack of movement, studies have long linked fitness with cognitive performance. As Gretchen Reynolds cites in the New York Times, “A memorable years-long Swedish study published last year found that, among more than a million 18-year-old boys who joined the army, better fitness was correlated with higher I.Q.s, even among identical twins. The fitter the twin, the higher his I.Q. The fittest of them were also more likely to go on to lucrative careers than the least fit, rendering them less likely, you would hope, to live in their parents’ basements.”

3. Movement can “wake up” the brain

Increased blood flow and oxygen from movement are great brain food. But physical movement also creates deeper engagement from a student with his or her surroundings, helping students better retain what they’re learning.

When students “experience” curriculum, as described in EdWeek, the connections they make to the subject matter are deeper and longer lasting. Lactic acid build-up as a concept, for example, is more memorable when kids experience it from using their own muscles.

With that in mind, you might also want to rethink your approach to fidgeting, which may be serving a hidden learning purpose:

“Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to “turn their brain on.” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to ‘sleep.’”

4. It’s a great way to get quiet and stillness when the lesson requires it

Allowing kids enough movement during the day will make it easier for them to sit still for quieter activities, like silent reading. And the “joy” factor of exercise can also make serious study time feel like less of a slog, especially for the kids who aren’t the biggest fans of sitting still.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of movement in learning is the variety it can bring to students’ days, and the new opportunities for learning it can give each individual. Science aside, why not shake things up for the simple fun of it?

For more reading:

Learn how exercise benefits the brain:” Human Kinetics explains the science behind movement’s benefits for cognitive function.

Movement and Learning:” The ASCD excerpts Eric Jensen’s Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 2nd Edition for the science behind movement learning and ways to incorporate it into your classroom.

–Cathy Vandewater