How Teaching with Body Movement Results in Enriched Learning Experiences

I can still remember when educators were beginning to talk about using movement in lessons as a way of enhancing learning for active children.

Games we played in grad school

The first night of a graduate class, the instructor invited us all out into the hallway. Our introduction to each other was an activity that was also meant to show us the value of using movement when learning new material. The theory was that if we did a body movement during the process of learning each others’ names, we would more easily acquire the names of our classmates. We stood in a circle, and one by one, we introduced ourselves. Once we’d been around the circle once and everyone had said their name, the instructor produced a ball and gave it to a lady. She was supposed to bounce the ball to another class member and say their name at the same time. The bouncee was to then become the bouncer, bouncing the ball to another member of the class while saying his name. This went on for a while. Finally, our instructor stopped the exercise and had several members of the circle see if they could accurately name every class member. Everyone was very pleased with the exercise.

Another activity was aimed at showing us how movement can help active learners learn high frequency words. A student laboriously cut out a stack of footprints from construction paper and wrote a sight word on each paper foot. Then she arranged the feet into a long path down the corridor. The game was played by asking a child to hop on each paper foot and simultaneously say each word as he hopped on it.

Activities in classrooms

In many classrooms, active children are encouraged to bounce quietly on big balls while studying or are allowed to swing their feet while doing their seatwork. We do understand that movement is helpful to many children, but is it just moving that helps? Or is it most helpful when movement is specific to the material being learned?

Is all movement created equal when it comes to learning?

What the activities I described above have in common is that the body movement for each part of the lesson is exactly the same. When we bounced the ball during our learning-each-others’-names activity, the bounces were identical. In hopping-on-paper-feet, each word received a similar hop.

What if movement imitated what they are learning?

What I would like to explore is whether or not our students would gain far more if they were encouraged to mimic their learning with body movement. When learning the word JUMP, for instance, if the child sees the word and jumps as she reads it, she is reinforcing the meaning of the word with her whole body. Later, when she sees the word JUMP, she will likely make a little hop in place, and most certainly she will remember not only what the word says, but what it means. She will have absorbed the meaning of the word in her body in multiple regions: eyes, ears, and whole body. Gesture or body movement that reflects the concept being learned will deepen the meaning for the child, show that he understands the concept, and become a means of recalling that concept later.

Let’s look at some other examples:

1. When teaching the meaning of addition, you could print the following equation on paper in a large size:

4 + 3 =

2. Have the child point with her left pointer finger to the 4 and to the 3 with her right hand pointer finger. When you say, “Four PLUS three,” have the child move her pointer fingers towards each other, signifying the numbers will come together and combine to make a new, bigger number.

7 - 3 =

3. In the subtraction equation above, again have the child point to each number with pointer fingers of each hand. Say, “Seven minus three,” and when you do, have the child move his right pointer finger decidedly to the right to signify that the 3 is going away from the seven, leaving a new, smaller number.

4. A whole body motion that shows the action for + is simply to bring both arms up and cross them tightly against your chest. You can make the action more to the point if you pick up some objects in each hand before crossing your arms over your chest to mimic the plus sign. This is the action of taking two groups and pulling them together to make a new total.

5. The ÷ sign can be acted out in a way that helps the child understand the action of division. Put 10 round plastic math counters on the table. Look at the problem 10 ÷ 2 = and push the counters into two groups. You can then have the child draw an imaginary line on the table in between the two groups, using their hand palm open, with the edge of their hand running along the table to mimic the line in the “divided by” symbol.


Use body motions for the math functions as you teach word problems.

Teach your child to listen to specific words and do the related body motion when your child reads a word problem; this will help him understand which function to use for each problem. Example: “Jane had two apples. She picked five more. How many does she have now?” Have your child act out the problem. 1. Jane has two apples: The child will pick up two plastic math counters. 2. She picked 5 more: The child will pick up 5 more math chips and then with chips in both hands, he will cross his arms in the plus sign when he hears the word “more.”

Your students can become their own best helpers as they learn to create and use body movements that reflect the concepts they are learning. Let’s try it today!

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