The Science Behind Movement: How to Use it to Boost Learning

The classroom, as far as most people remember it, has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. Whether public or private, chalkboards are a thing of the past. Rows of desks are reconfigured; digital documents are replacing paper copies; the library is now considered a media center; and smartboards project interactive lessons, movies, visual aids, and text-to-speech readings. What is fundamentally different about how schools are transforming is the notion of “doing.” Students, educators, and parents are now doing things in a totally different way. For instance, a smartphone app now texts students and parents reminders about upcoming assignments. Teachers can upload live video screenshots of a math lesson so that an absent student can still participate from home. Students are able to create digital representations of a structure they have designed, upload it to the classroom’s website, and receive comments and suggestions from peers in real-time.

Aside from the gains that technology has brought into the classroom, we have also begun to see learning processes in a new light. Of late, movement and kinetic strategies have been the topic of conversation among educators, developmental psychologists, researchers, etc. How exactly does this philosophy work? Are there any drawbacks to movement in the classroom? What can we do to best implement these strategies at home and in school?

Without getting too far down the rabbit hole in anatomical terms and rhetoric about how the brain works, scientific research supports one major claim about movement and learning: the same part of the brain that processes movement also happens to process learning, attention, and memory—the cerebellum. So in the same way that regular physical activity strengthens the muscles, movement similarly helps construct and strengthen neural pathways.  

The push for movement comes about at an interesting time, in which students as young as kindergarten aren’t having recess in order to accommodate the academic rigor of the school day. Some strongly believe that, in the same way that imaginative play has been somewhat marginalized, physical activity has become collateral damage—pushed aside to catch U.S. students up with the rest of the established world in terms of academics. Proponents of kinetic classrooms, however, wish to marry traditional learning with physical activity. In other words, instead of seeing learning time and recess time as separate entities, instruction and learning would be embedded with movement. This could take the form of yoga balls instead of traditional classroom chairs, standing or high-top desks as opposed to typical desks, rotation or station activities to promote constant movement, and hands-on and outdoor learning to provide real-world application and tangible concepts.

At home, this learning with movement philosophy could be different things, depending on the child’s needs and capabilities. For some, simply rolling a bouncy ball across the desk while studying could boost memory and reasoning. For others, it may help to listen to assigned chapters of an audiobook while jumping on the trampoline or juggling a soccer ball. Pacing while studying is a small tweak that allows kids to focus solely on the material while moving continuously and methodically.

Some concerns about shifting the traditional classroom model involve the distractibility of others. Yes, research indicates that movement helps with focus, attention, memory, and logical reasoning. But, could the movement of one student be a distraction to another? Some say yes. In the same way that a student may unknowingly rhythmically tap their pencil or kick the chair in front of them, movement in the classroom poses that issue on a greater scale. Some educators and parents may choose to start small—like providing a stress ball for the child to squeeze while working. The distraction level is minimal, but the concept of movement still applies.

So, what’s the takeaway? Studies show that movement can and does improve learning. It’s up to you and your child to see what movement-based strategies work best–and to make sure these tactics are approved for use in the classroom or reserved for home use. Regardless, it’s time to get a move on kinetic learning!