movement + learning

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”  – Fred Rogers

Imagine if we were to rethink what learning is all about. What if, instead of being glued to a chair and listening to a lecture, it was about exploring, creating and discovering new information? For kids and adults alike, this is the link between movement and learning and it is an incredible way to encourage stronger connections in both educational and social aspects.

Thanks to many research studies, we now know there is an extremely strong association between physical education and improved cognition. Movement can be an effective cognitive strategy to strengthen learning, improve memory and even to enhance learner motivation and morale. How does all this happen? Well, your cerebellum is the part of your brain most associated with motor control. Amazingly, it takes up just 1/10 of the brain by volume but contains nearly half of all its neurons and is the most complex portion of the brain. Studies have shown that the same part of the brain that processes movement also processes learning. So, big deal… what difference does that make? Well, it means that just because something is small doesn’t mean it isn’t mighty. And, it also means that the brain is practically begging to have stimulation that comes in the form of information AND movement.

Movement in learning can be based around your run-of-the-mill physical education programs, but kids don’t get as much of that as they need, especially at older ages. An astonishingly high 68 percent of HS students in the US don’t partake in a daily physical education program. It’s unfortunate because exercise fuels the brain with oxygen but it also feeds it to increase the number of connections between neurons. The best part is, exercise is known to increase the baseline of new neutron growth. I like to think as my muscles are getting bigger and more refined, so is my brain!

So, how do we play and learn outside of PE class? It doesn’t just have to be outside or in a gym, it can be anything from building with blocks or model building, to solitary play of puzzles or games, to dance and drama.

Quick games are activities like using a ball toss game for review. As each child catches the ball, they have to spell out a vocabulary word or share a fact about a topic. Energizers encourage children to get up and move around the room. Kids can move to group work stations with large paper to develop over-sized mind maps. Just the act of standing and moving about will make the activity ‘stick.’ And let’s not forget the power of stretching. By opening class with some student-led stretches, it gets the blood flowing and the mind ready to focus.

A cool study on exercise and classroom performance showed that even when a group of kids got four times more exercise per week than a control group of their peers, their ‘loss’ in studying time didn’t translate to lower academic scores. In fact, social skills improved! It helps students handle stress by ‘training’ their bodies to recover faster from quick adrenaline surges associated with demanding activities of the body and brain.

Kids are active creatures and by encouraging them to use that in combination with their studies, we have the potential to see some amazing results. Kids are happier, teachers feel like their students are absorbing more critical information and parents can rest assured that their kids are getting the best of several worlds… social skills, book smarts and physical health.

Michelle is a staff architect with an enthusiastic focus on learning environments.