“Learning doesn’t happen from the neck up; it happens from the feet up!”
Teacher intuition and a growing body of research tells us that a student’s physical life is undeniably intertwined with their intellectual life. In fact, it’s how they come to school—full of curiosity, excitement, and movement. No child or young adult should have to endure his or her experience of learning and discovery mostly from a seat. That would be at odds with both the natural human experience and how the brain prefers to learn.
Exercise or “brain breaks” have become the poster children for movement in schools. These topics are critical but if they are the only lens through which physical activity is viewed, the much larger pedagogical and emotional picture of physical activity as a best practice in all classrooms will be missed. We are brain/body creatures and that connection is powerful. It’s something that all teachers, coaches, administrators, and anyone who ever leads a training or meeting, needs to be acutely aware of.
Others ways of thinking about physical activity and learning
Physical activity can and should be natural to the school learning experience. Whether it be as mundane as moving to meet with a partner to discuss new learning or as exciting as calculating speed through team relays, a teacher who is a facilitator of learning will carefully consider physical activity thoughtfully and purposefully to maximize student achievement. Here are several ideas about movement that are not often discussed:
1. Movement can create motivation
Internal control psychology teaches us that we are driven to connect, to be competent, to make choices, to have fun, and to be safe (Sullo, 2007). Lessons structured to regularly meet those five needs will inspire motivation that fuels excellence.
Implementing movement throughout lessons is one way to accomplish this end. If students are allowed to move, both survival and freedom needs are met through supporting brain function. The need for power is met because of matched learning style and more accessibility to content. Movement-oriented cohesion activities build belonging and trust, which is essential to creating a sustainable home for the brain. Finally, using movement makes learning fun. In turn, students want to take part in learning instead of feeling disengaged.
2. Movement improves the learning state
At the end of the day, the learning process comes down to the interaction between teacher and student. That interaction becomes more effective when teachers manage students’ learning states—the state of their brain/body emotions—effectively. Eric Jensen (2000) tells us that meaning making is state dependent. Therefore, if a student has a positive learning state when material is taught, there is a better opportunity to make connections and understand the content. Movement is a powerful state manager.
3. Movement differentiates instruction
Differentiating by learning style is an essential teaching tool for our unique and diverse classrooms. If most learning depends on speaking and listening skills, then we are not doing justice to the students who prefer to learn kinesthetically.
4. Movement engages the senses
The brain learns and stores information through sensory cues. The more senses used for learning, the more likely the information will be learned and stored. In the classroom this often happens through listening, writing, seeing, and discussing. Adding movement to a lesson increases the likelihood that information will be learned, stored, and more easily retrieved for later use and transfer. Rarely do students have the opportunity to experience content through movement and the use of their body. Of all sensory information, sight, hearing, and touch (including kinesthetic experiences) contribute most to our learning (Sousa, 2017).
5. Movement reduces stress
Movement and exercise can have a positive effect on the brain as it aides in the reduction of stress levels. Using movement as part of an integrated classroom experience can serve to foster a positive climate by minimizing stress and maximizing learning.
6. Movement enhances episodic learning and memory
During a learning episode, the brain makes note of where it is when it learns something. When movement is used to learn a concept, a unique environmental note is made by the brain, making the information easier to recall. These unique environmental pictures of learning enhance the ability to recall information later.
We continually strive for greater academic achievement and joy in learning. To date the answer has been an elusive moving target. But that answer is becoming clearer as the research shows us the way. Creating a classroom environment using physical activity will naturally engage the brain in many different ways and make learning a more enjoyable endeavor because of the appeal to the brain/body connection. We must pay attention to the fact that both the brain and body are involved with learning and when the needs of one are met, the other can perform more effectively. The powerful combination of physical fitness, in great part through daily, fitness-oriented, quality physical education, and physical activity in classrooms in a variety of ways gives the brain a fighting chance to achieve. Looking for data-driven results in classrooms? Want the achievement you’ve been looking for at a bargain price? Make sure everyone has their sneakers tightly laced.
Glasser, W. (1998). Choice theory: A new psychology for personal freedom. New York: Harper Collins.
Jensen, E. (2000). Learning with the body in mind. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Kuczala, M. (2015). Training in motion: how to use movement to create engaging and effective learning. New York: AMACOM
Lengel, T. & Kuczala, M. (2010). The Kinesthetic Classroom: Teaching and Learning through Movement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Ratey, J. (2008). SPARK: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Sousa, D. (2017). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Sprenger, M. (1999). Learning and memory: The brain in action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Sullo, B. (2007). Activating the desire to learn. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.