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Active Learning Means Using the Body

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Good morning students! We are going to learn how to make multiplication problems. Today we have traveled back in time to the age of the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs reproduce by laying.....? Right! Eggs. The dinosaurs lay their eggs in ...? Correct again. Nests. In your baggy, you will find several paper nests and two colors of eggs.

I would be excited to learn what multiplication was if I was in this class!

This teacher set up a real, active, learning environment in which the students had to use their bodies to figure things out. That is what I want to talk about. I have lots of questions that are related to this concept: When was it that the schools separated the brain from the body? Why do students have to sit, and sit, and sit all day (especially secondary students)? Why is a pencil a tool to think with? How is it possible to type without looking at my fingers, or drive without looking at my feet?

In the Classroom

Now back to the lesson I observed. The teacher gave each student a baggy that contained several paper dinosaur nests and candies that looked like eggs. There were white ones and blue ones. The students were excited to learn, not only because of the enticement of candies, but because of the interest generated by the dinosaur nests. The teacher then verbally gave the students different scenarios of eggs. In some she described nests without regard to color, while with other scenarios, color was integral.

"One stegosaurus laid three blue eggs and one white one in one nest, and three blue ones and one white one in another. How many eggs total did she lay? How many white eggs did she lay? How many blue ones?" "This brontosaurus laid nine eggs total in three nests. She thinks that each nest had about the same amount of eggs. Can you show me what that might look like?" "A triceratops set a goal to lay 12 eggs. She built three nests. How many eggs would she need in each nest to make them all equal?" The teacher then took the time to connect the number of nests times how many eggs in each to multiplication. The kids "got it" right off the bat!

Compare this with what many teachers do -- "Here is a gridded piece of paper. Write the numbers one to ten going down, and then write them again going across. Now fill in the table with these numbers." After years of doing this, many students still don't get their times tables. What makes the difference? The answer is simple. The body is an extension of the brain.

Mind and Body Connection

You have heard of muscle memory, but what I am talking about the body increasing the brain's memory. That is how I can type without looking at my fingers and drive without looking at my feet. The idea is really simple. In order for the body to move, the brain usually has to tell it to move. So if the body is active, so is the brain. Repeated motions are learned by the brain and the body. Connect motions with concepts and the body becomes a literal extension of the brain. In a classroom where the students are asked to use their bodies as learning tools, the teacher can see if the student's "get it" just by watching what their bodies are doing.

Students who struggle can get a clue by simply looking around and seeing what other students are doing. Discipline is diminished because few students will want to be singled out by refusing to participate in the fun activity.

Points to Ponder

I witnessed a teacher teaching high school seniors how to improve their writing. I observed compliant behavior with undertones of resentment from most of the students as they obediently wrote a descriptive paragraph. Then, magically, I witnessed a total transformation in their attitudes when the teacher explained that they were going to publish a newsletter for the school. They did not know that in writing the newsletter, they will be doing much more writing than if they sat in class responding to teacher prompts. But they were so excited about it.

Writing is an active behavior; the brain has to tell the hands and fingers what to do (low on Bloom's). But writing with purpose is a learning behavior; the brain has to decide what to write and why to write it and then determine if it is the best thing to write (way up there on Bloom's Taxonomy).

A teacher can easily observe the learning going on by watching how the student's pencils fly over the pages. What makes the difference? It's simple. The body is an extension of the brain.

Maybe the brain got disconnected from the body because the teachers believe that the body moving all the time will take away vital energy resources from the brain, which will diminish thinking power. Perhaps, the students have to sit all the time because of the ink bottles often spilled when the students got out of their seats to participate in collaborative groups. I believe I know how a pencil can be a tool to "think-with": The student writes something down, and then thinks that the teacher won't like it, so the student turns the pencil upside down and erases, ponders something new and better to write, and then writes it down. Now we know everything!

I look forward to finding out how you help your students use their bodies to extend their learning power.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

sylviaduckworth's picture
French teacher in Canada, grades 3-5

HI Ben, Have you heard of AIM (The Accelerative Integrated Method) for teaching a second language? Gestures are used to teach vocabulary. Students are able to retain and imbed this vocabulary more effectively than using word lists or traditional approaches. Check it out:

Miss Farah's picture
Miss Farah
second grade homeroom teacher frm Beirut, Lebanon

I love it i just started explaining multiplication and i'm definitely going to try body movement! thank you

Rae Pica's picture
Rae Pica
Author, consultant, & radio host

Thanks for this post, Ben! I've been a children's physical activity specialist for 31 years and have diligently worked to eradicate the idea of the mind and body as separate entities.

The integration of mind and body, particularly as it relates to children's learning, is so meaningful to me that I created a radio show on BAM Radio Network - The Education Station - called Body, Mind and Child! Your readers can check it out at

Am definitely going to pass along the link to this piece. Thanks again.

Eric Silenzi's picture
Eric Silenzi
Curriculum Implementation Coordinator

"Discipline is diminished because few students will want to be singled out by refusing to participate in the fun activity."

Student discipline decreases when teachers design and implement lessons which incorporate hands-on, engaging activities. These lessons in turn increase student interest and therefore participation (as opposed to embarrassment).

Mrs. B's picture

Absolutely! When the body is moving, the brain is getting oxygen, and the chance of learning is amplified.

"TADA...Teaching Activities Done Aesthetically", supports learning while moving while singing standard based songs. An example is using music to teach place value at the primary level, singing each place value and gesturing at each one, with a great big swoop for the comma before the thousands place value. Adding gestures assists with our retention also.

Through our songs we use in the classroom, each provides learning through decoding, comprehension, vocabulary, spelling, in addition to teaching facts and details that can be expanded into writing and research components in the literacy area. Teaching the whole child with music, intertwined with components of all academic areas, and movement, then enhances cognitive needs and interaction, with driving student achievement as a top priority. Contemporary finding in neuropsychology and neurobiology with regard to child learning and well-being have significantly validated this perspective.
Here's a few articles that support this:

Erika Burton's picture
Erika Burton
Teacher, Founder of Stepping Stones Together ,and Educational Entrepreneur

We all learn differently. Movement helps get serotonin released into the body during exercise which positively influences memory and aids in learning. Children and adults alike can learn more when connecting what they already know (experiences) to new concepts and using movement.

Healthy bodies/minds work in tandem.

Erika Burton, Ph.D.
Stepping Stones Together, Founder
Empowering parental involvement in early literacy programs

Carol Anderson's picture

I agree with your fact 13 years ago I created the Music & Movement program at our district preschool. This was an enrichment class that students attended twice a week. I taught all the usual preschool skills but through music, rhythmic chants and movement activities. I also tried to gear my lessons to the theme most teachers were using in their classrooms. The children learned so much. In fact, the 2nd year of my program one of our children in the special needs class said her first sentence IN MY ROOM. She said it while playing a tambourine and singing!
I continued on in my career to coordinate a Teaching Artist Program through VSAarts of Texas (a non-profit that promotes arts for all). During this progrsm teaching artists did weekly lesson in preschool classrooms. The purpose of this particular program was not only to help children learn through the arts but to help teachers learn to teach through the arts.

Unfortunately both programs have been sacrificed due to budget problems but I continue to teach my students using music and movement and (hopefully) other teachers continue to do so.

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

One thing I've noticed this year is that when I sit at faculty meetings I get really tired. When I'm in the classroom teaching, I am full of energy. Sitting - I feel exhausted. Part of me wondered if this was because our faculty meetings are at the end of the day. No. I get tired in early morning meetings too.

I am starting to think, though, the problem is sitting. And if I get tired in a two hour staff meeting, how do my students feel by the end of the day?

My students need to move, especially some of my ADHD students. I do get them up with stand up, hand up, pair up and other active teaching methods, but sometimes they need more.

This year I've started giving movement breaks. When it is time to get up and move, we all stand by our desks. The students then run in place as fast as they can for 20 seconds. I prep them up about how it is only 20 seconds and they should really push themselves. Then they just rest for 10 seconds. Then they do high knees for 20 more seconds. Then they rest for the last 10 seconds. We normally then do 5 calming breaths before we sit down.

I let the students request the interval breaks by using raising the sign language letter B. This way I know that they want a movement break and I can work it in soon. I know they learn more if they are focused, and my most active students need to move.

From start to finish it takes less than 2 minutes and really it wakes everyone up! Plus, given the amount of obesity with children on the rise, and the fact that we only get PE once a week, it gets them moving!


Heidi Gilman Bennett's picture
Heidi Gilman Bennett
Independent Consultant, Educational Publishing

As a former dancer and elementary reading specialist turned publisher, I'm very interested in the links between movement and learning. A few research pieces from the early childhood world:

- Kindermusik's ABC Music & Me program, which engages young Pre-K children in music and movement along with early literacy, produced gains in self-control in a George Mason University study.

- At last summer's NICHD-sponsored conference on executive function, Dr. Betty Hoza of the University of VT, described a high-quality research study underway to engage young children with ADHD in an aerobic physical activity intervention.

The evidence for a link between movement and learning is emerging from the researchers focusing on young children... very exciting!

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