Physical Education

Moving to learn is not just for kindergartners: it’s for everyone who has a body.

While young students regularly play with “manipulables”– props that help them “get” concepts in math and literacy, older ones can deepen their understanding of cell mitosis or the concept of checks and balances in American government. They can gain the feeling of an historical period or culture, or acquire, through their bodies, deep understanding of otherwise abstract artistic and mathematical principles such as contrast and symmetry. The potential for learning through active strategies is both wide and deep.

Adults, too, can be powerfully affected by moving to learn. Paradoxically, it may be those adults who are not confident movers for whom learning through the body can be the most affecting, in part, learning psychologist Dawna Markova argues, because bodily activity activates the deepest, most unconscious modes of understanding for them.

As teachers become willing to wrestle with the extra work of making activity centers, the vulnerability-enhancing playing of experiential simulations, or the practicing of yoga with their students to enhance their social-emotional learning, they re-experience what their students do — the awkwardness, uncertainty, and jagged learning curve of trying to acquire an understanding for the first time. They not only provide but have powerful learning experiences.

Using their own bodies in their professional roles, teachers help students build both passion for the learning they face together and trust for where the teacher is trying to take them; it also inspires them to higher levels of achievement.

What follows are suggestions for integrating movement into the general education classroom experience. Teachers don’t need to be either “perfect” or “graceful” to do this. All they need is a willingness to try alongside their students. A grand leap from “just read about it” or “just talk about it,” it’s literally a “just do it”!

Trying Out Putting Learning on Its Feet

1. Build trust.

As you participate with your students and learn more about movement that you can use in your classroom, be mindful of any attempt to exploit the study of mind-body disciplines such as yoga, tai chi, and other martial arts for the purposes of classroom management or control. This can be a swift way to destroy the trust you have worked long to cultivate with your students! While it is true these practices can instill significant learning and health benefits for the students, including the ability to self-soothe, to direct attention, or to contribute to a caring classroom environment, students can readily sense the difference between adults who bring them these methods in order to control their behavior and those who treat their bodies respectfully, as students’ own.

A speech therapist in one of my workshops was flabbergasted by the improvement in rapport between her and one of her students, a boy with ADHD and receptive and expressive language delays. Together they did simple yoga balances — such as the popular Tree pose — and practiced conscious breathing. Afterward, she reflected, “Seeing his teacher trying to balance, and teaching him how to fall using muscle control created a different type of relationship between us. We had sorely needed something positive. It was powerful.”

2. Even though this work is highly motivating, set realistic expectations.

Nowadays, children may be as divorced from their bodies as once only adults were! A teacher of fourth and fifth graders was able to get her students to develop an impressively wide array of synonyms for the words calming, energizing, and focusing — the types of yoga poses they would practice together to enhance learning readiness. However, once they got up on their feet and began practicing, she reported back, students had difficulty accessing actual body sensations and putting names to them.

Students who don’t even realize they’re flying off the handle can’t instantly calm themselves: they need first to become aware of their anger, frustration, fear, sadness, or other negative emotion. Learning to articulate their feeling and bodily states will precede students’ ability and willingness to explore alternative expressions.

3. Recognize opportunities for making a concept real to a student physically.

The body is available to help with many different types of learning, which is why I like to refer to kinesthetic intelligences, in the plural. In some learning tasks, simple bodily repetition of a motion solidifies the learning “in the body,” as when learning to use scissors. In others, pairing a motion with a musical or verbal cue can help to embed learning in memory: think of the scene in the film Akeelah and the Bee in which the main character spells “effervescent” perfectly as she beats time jumping rope. Kinesthetic learning also pairs beautifully with intrapersonal, interpersonal, and spatial tasks, such as discovering one’s relationship to a poem by moving as it is recited, learning to tell time by becoming a “body clock,” or participating in social simulation games — all examples of successful lessons implemented by teachers I have worked with.

4. Don’t confuse learning through movement with performing through movement. Rehearse, don’t perform.

Much of the literature on multiple intelligences has answered to teachers’ anxiety about how to assess learning activities that are not paper and pencil-based. It’s thus easy to confuse kinesthetic learning with kinesthetic assessment, the sometimes-inauthentic performances of learning that have so often been inelegantly used to determine what children understood from a unit.

Preparing for a performance is quite a different task than putting learning on its feet. For most students and most body-based learning activities, the true learning that is available resides in the experience of figuring something out using the body, in the “rehearsal.” When a student experiments, on his feet, in order to discover the meaning of a Langston Hughes poem, he is simultaneously thinking critically in ways that affect his movement and moving in ways that develop his thinking. Similarly, acting out where on the ill-fated Titanic the poorer people and the wealthier would have been housed offers students more potential for insight and for meaningful connections about social class in its historical perspective than does the performance of the eventual scene for the class. Consider giving more weight to students’ approach to rehearsal than to their performances.

5. Keep students’ (and teachers’) bodily experience their own.

Be careful that, as you bring students’ bodies into play in the classroom, you let decisions about how they use their bodies reside with them. As a Chicago-area third-grade teacher said, students “are capable of making appropriate decisions about what their bodies need.” Give students freedom not to participate, for whatever reason, so long as they are not distracting the others. More often than not, given the opportunity to watch first, and see a teacher who’s “in there,” moving along with her students, students will come and participate, once they’re ready.

Remember that the teacher’s willingness to model, her respect for students’ bodily experience, and her exercising of her imagination about ways to use physical activity to reach learners are all much more vital to students’ learning experience than her expertise as a mover. Put on your own “thinking feet” and, with your students, take them for a walk.

What have you learned through doing, trying, practicing– whether in a class or “on the street,” either recently or long ago?

And if you’re looking for further ideas about how to put learning and thinking on their feet, see some school-ready resources in the post below.