George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Why Movement Matters in Math

These strategies for building controlled movement into learning can help middle school math students stay focused and engaged.

May 15, 2024
Martine Severin / iStock

Make students move: Studies show that movement fosters communication, and thus increases learning. Understanding the middle school brain and development is crucial to creating the activities that will stimulate young minds and foster growth. 

Since many school districts have block scheduling, with classes that are typically about 90 minutes, students need to be motivated, and having them move, with purpose, is a great way to increase engagement. The activities I share here have very little prep and include movement with structure, leaving chaos behind. They work best in classrooms where students can move about freely—i.e., rooms with seating in groups or tables.

Getting students to move

Entry tickets: You can start students moving as soon as they come in with an entry ticket, which can be a useful formative assessment to see what they remember from a prior lesson. Use sticky notes to create a short question that students can answer quickly, and require that they get up to place their answer on the board. (Privately address anyone who answers incorrectly, later.) Students will then be more focused, since they’ve already had a chance to move around.

People search: During the lesson, a “people search” is one of my favorite ways to get kids moving while learning. I hand out a worksheet and set the timer for seven to 10 minutes for independent work. When time’s up, the students need to search to get signatures in the squares for the problems answered. 

For example, two students will sign each other’s papers for question one, and then each student must look for another person to sign for question two. No one is allowed to use the same classmate twice, which leads to talking with peers they may not have worked with otherwise. Lastly, students must discuss the answers they don’t agree on. This is the best part: listening to the mathematical conversations and witnessing learning taking place.

Rotating pairs: “Speed dating” is another favorite. The students sit in rows, but paired together. Students on the left get one color index card, and students on the right get another. I use pink and blue for this example. The students rotate, as in actual speed dating, and each person works with every other person. 

The students with the blue cards move back one seat after each round, while the pink card holders stay seated. The student at the back moves to the front of the next row and so forth, until all students have worked together. I have seen some pairs work well together when I would have predicted otherwise.

The timer is set for a couple of minutes, and the time is shortened as the students work faster through each round. Solving equations (each person has a different expression) or slope (each person has a different coordinate point) is a great lesson for this type of activity. The kids love the speed of it and get really proficient at the same time. They record everything on their paper, again discussing errors as they arise, enforcing the learning while moving around.  

Games: Mind aligned strategies are also great for getting students up and out of their seats with a purpose for learning. Students can demonstrate transformations of quadratic functions in algebra by raising their arms up or down, along with taking steps left and right to model the transformation equation being shown. The whole class could act this out as well or use a Simon Says format. Simon Says is great too for learning transformations in geometry, solidifying the rotational directions and degrees for your students.

A true scavenger hunt involves the students actively searching for problems to solve. Teams of three work well, as they search for envelopes hidden around the room. It’s also fun to use plastic eggs when it’s Easter time and put the problems inside the eggs. The envelopes are a lot less conspicuous, so depending on your classroom, you can decide what is best. 

Put several envelopes labeled with a color, and hide them anywhere you like. Leave the envelopes slightly showing, so the students don’t have to dig too much to find them. They then solve what they find collaboratively, using a workmat, and put the envelopes back exactly where they found them so that other teams can find them. This is the workmat I use for systems of equations. It’s a good idea to make two or three envelopes for each color. Students can only hand in work when everyone in the group has the same answers, which encourages conversations among the team.

There are many other activities I have in my toolbox to get students moving with a purpose, such as gallery walks, station work, wipebooks, clock buddies, and digital activities such as Quizlet Live.

The above activities are quick to set up, which is a huge benefit when trying something new. Additionally, as the facilitator, and having students move with a purpose, you’ll undoubtedly see how focused they are with the task at hand. These activities work well for all students, including multilanguage learners and students with special needs. The engagement, discussion, collaboration, and learning that take place are very rewarding and beneficial, so instead of trying to keep the students quiet and seated, let them move. 

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  • 6-8 Middle School

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