George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

More Than a Dozen Ways to Build Movement Into Learning

Physical activity that amplifies learning can have a powerful effect on retention and engagement—it’s also fun.

October 8, 2021
Students play a stretching game during a classroom break
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

When researchers at Texas A&M University gave standing desks to 34 high school students, they discovered that after consistent use, standing while learning delivered a significant boost to students’ executive functioning skills—the sorts of cognitive skills that allow kids to manage their time, understand and memorize information, and organize thoughts in writing. Even small amounts of movement, this emerging research revealed, can deliver a positive impact on learning: Neurocognitive testing of the standing students, the pilot study notes, showed a 7 to 14 percent improvement in their cognitive performance, a noteworthy impact for such a simple intervention.

Infusing classrooms with physical activity—or at least the option of some movement, at student discretion—isn’t just good for kids’ bodies, it’s also a powerful tool for improving learning and focus and reducing classroom management issues. And yet, from kindergarten through high school “students spend most of their academic lives at a desk,” says educator Brad Johnson for The Washington Post, an arrangement that is meant to increase their focus and academic productivity, but can actually create kids who are “bored, off-task, disruptive or otherwise disengaged.”

There are many smart, innovative ways to build movement into lessons and the research increasingly supports getting kids moving in schools to promote better physical health, provide the types of breaks that reset our cognitive processes so that we can learn anew, and even link our physical bodies to our cognitive insights to encode learning more deeply. From intentionally aligning curriculum with movement to improve retention, to planning frequent and active brain breaks to clear working memory, here are more than a dozen ways educators and researchers are pairing learning with movement.

INTEGRATING MOVEMENT IN THE CURRICULUM

Incorporating gross and fine motor activities across many subject areas makes a lot of sense, particularly to teach foundational concepts. In math classes, for instance, you can create chalk grids on the playground and have children walk sloped lines, stopping to discuss and walk the line’s “rise” and “run,” or you can use hand and arm gestures to teach a broader range of mathematical concepts like tangents and cosines. Here are a few more ways educators are injecting movement into lessons.

In Science, Becoming a Liquid: Science teacher and instructional coach JaShan Wilson turned social distancing requirements into an opportunity for her students to “use their own bodies to model movements, test phenomena, and engage with the curriculum.”

For lessons on matter and particle movement, for example, she asks students to “act like solids, liquids, or gases,” and then “switch it up as in Simon Says until all students sped up, slowed down, or vibrated in order to represent how matter moves.” For a unit on energy, Wilson’s students examine the transfer of energy by making wave movements with their arms. “The more energy they apply, the higher the amplitude,” Wilson notes. Engaging students in these “human labs,” as Wilson calls them, delivered impressive academic results: Her students did better on formative assessments and “continued to utilize the movements and reference the activities, which showed how they connected the concepts to them permanently.”

Playing Basketball Math: In a six-week study involving 757 Copenhagen elementary school students, researchers had half the students do math while playing basketball. The other half studied math in class as usual, and played basketball solely as a regular gym activity.

The kids who played while doing math did tasks like “counting how many times they could sink a basket from three meters away versus at a one-meter distance,” and then added up the numbers, says Linn Damsgaard, one of the study’s authors. Among the students who played basketball while doing math, the researchers reported a 6 percent boost in math mastery; a 16 percent increase in intrinsic motivation; and a 14 percent improvement in “perceived autonomy,” or self-determination, compared to peers learning in the classroom.

Student Thespians: When researchers asked 8-year-olds to mimic the words they were learning in another language by using their hands and bodies to act out the word’s meaning—by spreading their arms and pretending to fly while they learned the German word for airplane, for example—the students were 73 percent more likely to recall them, even two months later.

In ELA and social study classes, having kids partake in skits may feel like it’s inviting chaos, but the body will often remember what the mind forgets—and getting students to act out historical events or scenes from works of literature can help them remember the information, grasp the basic elements of drama, or provide them with a new opportunity to listen to the sounds and rhythms of written and spoken language.

Drawing It Out: Even indifferent or unpracticed artists benefit by drawing what they’ve learned, a 2018 study concluded, resulting in retention rates that were double the rates of when kids wrote or read.

When a student draws a concept, they “must elaborate on its meaning and semantic features,” the researchers explain, while engaging “in the actual hand movements needed for drawing”—a rich mixture of cognitive and physiological activities that encodes learning more deeply and is a “reliable, replicable means of boosting performance.”

The drawing doesn’t have to be expert-level: even stick figures or crude shapes accompanied by annotations will do, and data visualizations work similarly to hand-drawn pictures. You can assess learning by allowing kids to try one-pagers that demonstrate their understanding of a topic through art; incorporate more graphs and statistical modeling into math and science classes; have students draw models of solar systems or cells in science classes; or let students create travel journals to document any learning journey graphically.

ACTIVE BRAIN BREAKS

Research shows that when students take brief, active breaks throughout the day, it increases productivity, creativity, and social skills. “When we take a brain break, it refreshes our thinking and helps us discover another solution to a problem or see a situation through a different lens,” writes Lori Desautels, an assistant professor at the Butler University College of Education. “The brain break actually helps to incubate and process new information,” says Desautels.

So plan for frequent breaks (we’ve included a few ideas to get you started) and keep them active and social—a brisk walk around the perimeter of the classroom, a quick stretch, an energizing freeze dance.

Brain breaks for younger students: Try wiggle breaks where kids stand and wiggle each arm and leg in succession or opposite sides, where kids blink one eye while snapping fingers on the opposite side and then reverse the exercise. For energizing breath, have students pant like dogs with their mouths open and tongues out for 30 seconds, hands on the belly, then breathe briskly for another 30 seconds with mouths closed. Easier still: invite kids to jump in place like they’re on a trampoline; or keep it really simple with a quick crab walk around the room. 

Brain breaks for older students: Try a wave, starting at one end of the room with students standing and raising their arms; or have them get out of their chairs for a whole-body stretch or for a brief walk around the room. They can also pass a ball around for a quick game of catch, practice a few yoga poses like tree pose or warrior II, or very simply, ask them to hop on one foot, then switch to the other foot for a minute or two.

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT MOVEMENT WHILE LEARNING

Doodling, Fidgeting, and More: There’s often confusion about movement that is not directly related to learning. While drawing a plant cell or creating a pictorial representation of a scene from a novel will deepen retention and result in more durable learning, when students doodle during lessons—by drawing elaborate cartoons while an unrelated lesson is in progress, for example—the research, and the cognitive science, suggests that learning is compromised.

In a 2019 study during which students were asked to doodle—which the researchers defined as “drawing that is semantically unrelated to to-be-remembered information”—while they learned, they showed “poorer free recall for words encoded while free-form doodling compared to words that were drawn or written.”

Multitasking divides our attention, a finite cognitive resource, and makes us less proficient at both tasks. But there’s a wrinkle here, too: There is some evidence that activities that require very little attention, like fidgeting or listening to soft background music (but probably not loud or attention-gobbling music), don’t divide our focus to the same degree. Being tolerant of a certain amount of fidgeting or a pair of headphones is an important accommodation for students who might otherwise need to get out of their seats entirely, or might struggle with focused, demanding tasks like homework. In the end, the more distracting any task is to the lesson, the less likely learning is to stick.

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