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Virginia Journal of Education

Get a Move On!

Movement is an effective instructional tool because the brain remembers what the body experiences.

by Lawrence Baines

The aphorism that “You never forget how to ride a bike” actually is substantiated by a vast body of research—not that scientific evidence is necessary to be convinced of how well the body remembers. I learned how to square dance in fourth grade and although I have had no occasion to utilize this particular skill since that time, I still remember how to do-si-do, promenade and twirl. I have remembered how to square dance, not because I have consistently completed worksheets on square dancing for homework over the past 40 years and not because I have taken a battery of multiple-choice tests on square dancing, but because movement is a completely natural, enduring and almost effortless way to learn.

It’s no accident that Piaget characterized the first stage of child development as the “sensimotor” stage because so much of a child’s intellectual development is dependent upon movement and touch. In fact, blunted intellectual development is often attributable not to brain malfunction, but to a child’s limited interactions with the physical world. After all, a child’s earliest expressions of mind and willpower are communicated largely through vocalizations and physical gestures.

Movement is an essential, albeit unheralded, component of many effective instructional strategies. For example, both Reading Recovery and the Orton-Gillingham Method for improving literacy require that students manipulate magnetic letters or trace letters on sandpaper. The physical motion of tracing and the tactile impressions gleaned from scribbling letters onto sandpaper help students associate letters with particular sounds and words. Researchers Mark Sadoski and Allan Paivio brand the process of using sensory stimuli to enhance reading and writing as dual-coding. Dual-coding theory is predicated upon the idea that messages are communicated from the senses to the brain simultaneously as the brain also attempts to decipher text. The sensory inputs create a kind of anchor for interpretation and analysis, an anchor that is not available through sensory-restricted activities, such as silent reading.

I tend to think of movement and touch in more pedestrian terms—as fundamental, innate ways of knowing. In my own research, I’ve found that most of what we know, think and feel about the world is dependent upon what is revealed through the senses. Despite the centrality of sense perceptions to brain development, most instruction in schools still relies upon the ability to interpret squiggles and dots on a page (text) quickly and accurately. The quickest and most accurate decoders usually turn out to be the valedictorians; the slowest and least accurate decoders are those least likely to attend college.

The most effective classrooms for young children are happy, safe environments, where teachers are caring, and movement and play are central to the school day. However, as children get older, schools typically provide less opportunity for movement and fewer chances to play. Recess usually disappears by sixth grade; movement as an instructional technique often years before. By the time students enter high school in the United States, they are expected to sit quietly and motionlessly for seven to eight hours per day with only five-minute breaks every hour and perhaps a half-hour for lunch. This translates into over 1,000 hours of sitting still. For adolescents, whose biological systems burn with excess energy, whose limbic systems respond to even innocuous incidents with emotion, and whose brains relentlessly seek the stimulation of new experiences, the prospect of sitting still for well over a thousand hours per annum does not evoke much joy.
Today, some education stakeholders talk about extending the school day to increase achievement, though little evidence corroborates that more time spent in school accomplishes that. My research shows, for example, that children in Finland spend about 40 percent less time in schools than American children, though Finnish children score the highest marks in the world on international achievement tests. Indeed, one of the great tragedies of eight years of No Child Left Behind is that, when mean test scores decline, the first response of schools has been to rid themselves of recess and electives, including physical education. Although physical education is no longer required in many schools, plenty of research substantiates that children who are fit perform better at academic tasks than children who are out of shape.
The effective teacher of the twenty-first century must appeal to the whole person—not just to the intellect. As Madeline Bruser writes in her book, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart, “Presence is the state of being fully present, of body, mind, heart, and sense perceptions being completely engaged with the activity of the present moment.” To maximize the time that students are fully present in class is to maximize the potential for student learning.

Most teachers know, at least implicitly, that teaching through movement is an effective instructional strategy. The problem comes in finding time to incorporate movement into a school day already overflowing with “absolutely must-do’s,” “need-to-do’s” and “probably-should-do’s.” To deal with the innumerable curricular requirements, a list that seems to grow every year, most teachers resort to instructional strategies that maximize “coverage.” Such strategies rely upon, almost exclusively, some combination of silent reading, summarization, questioning, discussion and tests. Unfortunately, these kinds of sedentary strategies are most effective with captive audiences who have personal stakes in mastering the material. For example, if I were making a presentation to investors on how to make $20 million with no risk and with no initial investment, I could be fairly certain that most of them would read and carefully study whatever documents I distributed. These investors would be eager to discuss questions the next day and would be enthusiastic about testing their knowledge through some sort of assessment to make sure that their understanding was on target.

In contrast, if I wanted to teach the history of the Roman Empire to a classroom of 30 sixteen-year-olds, using the same techniques used with the investors, there is a good chance that the enterprise would be a waste of time. This is because, unlike investors eyeing the prospect of easy money, adolescents may see no immediate payoff for learning about the Roman Empire other than the fleeting promise of a passing grade. Most students are not intrinsically interested in all subjects, thus they need instructional strategies that invite participation.

Transforming a deskbound lesson into one involving movement is not difficult, though it requires some ingenuity and purposeful planning. Just in the past year, studies have surfaced demonstrating the effectiveness of using movement to teach topics as diverse as science and writing. Below, I describe examples of teachers who transformed previously sedentary lessons into activities that get students moving.

Case 1: Numeracy in the early years
Learning numbers in the early years is difficult for children for many reasons, including the following:

  • They must learn the linguistic names for numbers, and
  • They must learn to perform abstract operations in their heads using only the newly learned linguistic names.

Sometimes, children fail to master numbers at an early age because they have nothing familiar to help anchor this new way of interacting with the world.

To move mathematics from the purely abstract to the concrete, Barbara Wymer, an elementary teacher, uses physical movements to teach number concepts.  Thrusting two hands overhead represents the value 10. One hand extended straight in front of the body represents the value 5. Individual fingers represent 1s. So, the number 36 can be represented as three double-thrusts of the arms overhead, one jab, and finally, one finger.  Barbara says that she playfully “tests” students on their numbers during spontaneous moments in class or as they line up for lunch. She will quickly go through a series of motions, then let students guess what number she represented. After only a few weeks, everyone in class learns to count.

Case 2: Geography in elementary school
Third graders, who find it easy to get lost on the way back to class from the lunchroom, are not the easiest audience for a lesson on geography. To be sure, teaching geography to very young students is challenging because most have had little opportunity to develop their sense of direction. If they travel, their parents are usually the ones planning the trips, working with the maps, and driving the vehicles. Even the most peripatetic children will have no firsthand experience with terms such as the equator, the North Pole, the Tropic of Cancer, the Tropic of Capricorn and Antarctica.  Thus, these concepts may prove abstruse and difficult to grasp.
Beth Kreais, an elementary teacher, teaches geographic terms by working off of the body. The top of the head is the North Pole, the Tropic of Cancer is the chest (mnemonic device=breast cancer), the waist is the equator, the knees are The Tropic of Capricorn, and the toes represent Antarctica. All of Beth’s students score 100 percent on geographic terms at test time at the end of the year. According to Beth, after learning these terms early in the year, they require little, if any review.

Case 3: Writing in complete sentences
In secondary schools, many students still struggle with distinguishing among a complete sentence, a run-on sentence, and a fragment. To address this problem, Lavender Krupp, a teacher of English, has students put their hands in front of them, “as if they were showing how long a foot-long Subway sandwich is.” Then, they discuss how one hand represents the beginning of the sandwich (sentence), and the other hand the end of the sandwich (sentence). The distance between two hands represents a complete sentence. When a sentence has no end, Lavender keeps one hand still, moves the other hand quickly wider, and says “r-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-un-on” as she moves her active arm ever wider to signify that the writer has neglected to put a proper end on the sentence.

To demonstrate a fragment, she places her forefinger and thumb about an inch apart and says “fragment.” As she gestures, students mimic her actions and her speech. In this way, students begin to understand the concept that a complete sentence is substantial, with a definite beginning and end, whereas a run-on never ends. A fragment is so small and flimsy, it cannot stand alone.

It is almost impossible to fall asleep while the body is in motion. This fact, combined with the brain’s knack for remembering what the body experiences, augurs well for movement as an instructional tool for teachers and children of all ages. To create lessons that are both effective and enduring, teachers may want to consider ways to get students out of their seats and moving.

Baines (, author of A Teacher’s Guide to Multisensory Learning, works at the University of Oklahoma.



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