Student Engagement

Basketball Mathematics—and 4 Other Ways to Mix Movement and Learning

Getting students to be physically active while they’re learning can deliver significant cognitive and academic benefits, a new study confirms.

May 14, 2021
FatCamera / iStock

When researchers from the University of Copenhagen set out to examine the cognitive and academic benefits of pairing lessons with physical activity, they zeroed in on basketball and mathematics, hoping that combining the two might illustrate the potential of making classroom learning a less sedentary activity, according to a Science Daily research brief.

“Our aim, with integrating mathematical tasks with concrete and physically active basketball tasks, was to make the learning activities more interesting, meaningful, play-based, and fun for the children,” the researchers note in the study, published in Frontiers in Psychology. “More specifically, we hypothesize that basketball combined with mathematics is a concrete physically active way of employing, practicing, and learning mathematics that will result in students feeling a higher degree of autonomy and competence, and is more intrinsically motivating than classroom-based mathematics.”

Results of the six-week study—which involved 757 elementary school students in the Danish city of Copenhagen, half doing math while playing basketball, the other half studying math in class as usual, and playing basketball solely as a regular gym class activity—delivered promising results. Among the students who experienced the “six-week mashup of hoops and math,” Science Daily notes, the researchers reported a 6 percent boost in math mastery. Intrinsic motivation, they found, was 16 percent higher than for the kids doing standard math in the classroom. The “hoops and math” kids also showed a 14 percent improvement in “perceived autonomy,” or self-determination, compared to peers learning in the classroom.

Other studies support the Copenhagen findings. People learn better, research shows, when information is delivered in multiple ways, including verbal, visual, and kinesthetic, making it easier to encode into long-term memory.  And even when movement is incorporated into learning in very subtle ways, it can make a difference: a growing body of  research indicates that when teachers or students gesture or act things out as they’re learning, they tend to remember material better.

Here are a few ways that educators are pairing learning with physical activity and movement.

Acting Out Terms and Ideas

Infusing movement into learning doesn’t necessarily require a major effort. Sometimes, it can be as simple as encouraging students to use their bodies to represent or act out important terms or ideas, or to show understanding, in the process building engagement and kids’ capacity to commit learning to long-term memory, write Suzanne F. Lindt and Stacia C. Miller for Phi Delta Kappan.

After reading a book about emotions, for example, “students might be asked to stand up and act out the new words they’ve just learned, such as ‘satisfied,’ ‘furious,’ and ‘courageous’,” write Lindt and Miller who are professors at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. “During story time, they might be asked to stomp their feet, representing a period, every time the teacher reaches the end of a sentence. Or, when learning to add and subtract, they might be asked to hop forward or backward on a number line.”

Mixing ELA and Phys Ed

At Casey Middle School, in Boulder, Colorado, English class tends to be unusually active. “It’s really a fitness class combined with language arts,” says Val Wheeler, a language arts and fitness teacher at the school, where educators are finding that pairing aerobic and anaerobic activities with academics can deliver significant boosts in student cognition, allowing students to be more alert in class, focused, and collaborative. “For three days of the week, it’s fitness and then language arts, about 45 minutes apiece. And then two days, it’s all fitness and language arts in one.”

As kids jog or walk around the soccer field, for example, they’ll discuss a topic from a book they’re reading, or brainstorm themes for a research paper during a hike. “Movement is good for everyone. It helps everybody learn. They can learn while they’re moving and they can learn after they’ve just been moving a lot,” says Alison Boggs, the school's principal. “It’s teaching them that you don’t have to sit and think to figure something out. You can move and think and figure something out.”

Learning Math Through Dance

After-school program Shine for Girls combines math with dance to help build math skills and confidence among middle school girls—an effort to dampen the effect of stereotypes and cultural norms that lead many girls to turn away from the STEM field. “Because movement allows a student an alternative approach to the information, it can help put them in the receptive state required for learning,” writes Kirin Sinha, the after-school program’s founder. “This breaching of mental barriers is especially significant for young women, who are more likely to self-limit their abilities because of the social stigma associated with mathematics and the STEM fields.”

Facilitators might, for example, help students solve algebra problems via a choreography unit. “Girls can create a simple dance of three twirls followed by a jump, and will write it down as ‘3x+y where x = twirl, y = jump,’” notes Sinha. “Through dancing, girls realize that 3(x+y) = 3x + 3y. Before they can say, ‘I can't do algebra,’ they already have. This begins the positive feedback loop of girls believing in themselves, and their confidence stems from knowing that they have the ability to succeed.”

Using Sports to Teach SEL

Pairing movement and learning isn’t limited to academics. Outside of school, sports present a uniquely valuable opportunity to build and reinforce critical social and emotional skills in a fun, collaborative environment. At the Boys & Girls Club in Greater Green Bay, Wisconsin, for instance, students aren’t simply playing flag football, or lobbing a ball over the volleyball net. As they blow off steam after school playing sports, they’re concurrently working through a sophisticated social and emotional skills curriculum, supported by staff trained to lead them through ice breakers, check-ins, goal-setting, and strategies for coping with adversity and conflict.

“When kids come here, they want the ability to run around and they want to play games. But it’s also the place where we experience them not being able to regulate their emotions,” says Eric Vanden Heuvel, the program’s executive director. “By incorporating the social emotional supports, and by training our staff in the gym, we are able to see kids in an environment that generally creates a lot of conflict and a lot of emotion, and we’re able to grow the social and emotional learning aspects and allow all kids to be successful.”

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