Let me jump straight to the point: movement based learning supports neural pathways for cognitive growth. Dr. Kenneth Wesson, Educational Consultant: Neuroscience, says, “Young, developing brains benefit most from a rich variety of one-on-one emotional, verbal, visual, physical and tactile engagements.” (2011) When we use movement to help students understand content, we are helping them encode information to be stored in their brains far more effectively than the old “sage on the stage” model in which we dump information into their brains through traditional class lectures.
Why does this work? Simply put, the brain needs glycogen to function. When you move, your body pumps blood to the brain, keeping the brain healthy and happy. Neurons and synapses are primed for connection building, meaning making and encoding information for later retrieval.
Am I talking about the Hokey Pokey or a one-minute dance break every 20 minutes? No, but those aren’t bad ideas. I’ll explore how you can use movement to help students make connections in the content they’re learning, using movement to encode that information, while having fun the whole time.
Use Your Body to Tell a Story
How many ways can your arm, hand, and fingers make a story come to life? Explore telling a story and having your students use just their arm, hand, and fingers to “act” out the story. For example, your arm can flatten to show a street, flex to denote power, or mimic a blooming tree, a cat, or the ocean. Read one of your favorite stories to yourself and try this out. You could even have your students choreograph movements together!
Using Tableaux, scenes with silent actors, who move into various still frames, are powerful ways to help students form understanding of large concepts or themes they are working with. Here is a video that shows what Tableaux are, and how to try them out: Tableau: Theater and Language Arts.
The Writing’s in the Air
Instruct your students to encode information by asking them to “write it in the air” or “tattoo” it on the skin on the underside of their forearms, using their index fingers as “pens.” These two strategies are highly effective for one specific reason. In embryo, the first two cells that divide become the brain and the skin, which means that our skin is the primary sensory receptor (in-taking information). “During the process of embryogenesis and early brain development… the same tissue mass that becomes the brain… splits into two during early stages of brain development and the other half of it becomes, guess what, your skin!” Dr. Kenneth Wesson says in a 2014 Alameda County Office of Education panel discussion. “Your skin is literally the other half of your brain.”
Most instructional time is wasted on transitions, namely futile efforts to quiet students, get them lined up, or sitting for their next scheduled task. Instead of falling into models that can feel oppressive to the natural energy of children, see how creative your transitions can be. I like to take games that students are playing during recess and modify them to meet my needs of preparing students for the next task. That way, the transition is fun, fast, and easy.
For example, use the idea of playing tag to help students transition back to the classroom. Instead of tagging someone with their hands, have them “tag” a color with their eyes, or “tag” a shape. They can use facial expressions when they’ve “tagged” an object or idea to show you they’re participating. This keeps your students active and engaged, yet settles their bodies from recess and prepares them for academic time.
Another trick I’ve learned from Sarah Crowell, the program director at Destiny Arts in Oakland, California, is to have students connect by touching index finger to index finger, à la that E.T. phone home moment. Help your students guide their partners to the next destination, reminding them not to break their index finger connection as they move.
When moving students from one activity to the next you can also ask them to crawl like a four-legged mammal, jump to their desks like a marsupial, or walk to their circle spots like one of the characters in the book you’re studying.
Dance It Out
Anything can become a dance. Take a math equation and ask students to build a movement to represent each part of the equation. Demonstrate a few examples, such as throwing up your arms to make a Y or crossing your arms to make an X. Or, encourage your class to conceptualize chemistry through choreographing a piece on combustion. By asking the right questions and facilitating cognitive routines that include movement, you’ll help your class reach important academic outcomes in memorable and fun ways.
So get moving, shake it out, stretch and explore some new ideas, and know that you are creating a culture of thinking when you allow your students to use their bodies to maximize their cognitive growth. You’ll know you’ve hit the mark when you hear laughter, see smiles, and have all of your students shaking a leg or two!