Do children learn better when they move their bodies instead of sitting still at their desks?

The answer to this question might be a resounding ‘yes!’.   Katie Taylor (mother, professor and researcher of learning with technology) recently contributed to The Conversation. During a Zoom class organised by her 6-year old’s  teacher, she noticed that his hands would begin to fidget with anything at hand, such as Legos and crayons.

This kind of behaviour in a classroom might suggest that he cannot pay attention, or is ‘off task’.   Is this so?  Is it perhaps more correct to understand that his fiddling actually helps him to arouse his mind and keep it focused on the task ?

The answer could be that sitting in front of a computer screen interferes with or completely detaches people from our ability to take in and process sensory information.  To learn most efficiently, our minds depend on the movement of our body parts, at best involving working with a variety of tools, being in dynamic places and having others nearby.

 The body’s role in thinking

Most notably, remote learning, as happens using Zoom classes, assumes that as long as the mind is engaged, it’s fine if the body stays still. But this argument is flawed.

Research has shown that the body needs to be interacting with the world of learning before the mind can become engaged.  That’s why learners working with a variety of tools and materials during a learning activity are better able to grasp abstract concepts, such as fractions, for example.

To ask learners to sit still while performing their work actually puts an unnecessary load on the mind. It requires them to concentrate on quieting their bodies, which are seeking out ways of making sense of the incoming information. This causes conflict. 

Get ready to move

Some learners will remain online for much of the rest of the academic year—due to health or other concerns—while others will return to classrooms.  Both models of school can better incorporate the body to support learning. The following tips are for educators designing remote or in-person classes, though parents and learners can also encourage and help sustain an active classroom culture. 

  1. Normalise movement during classes, not just during movement breaks. For instance, make a neighbourhood walk the mode of inquiry for the day’s science lesson. Ask learners to bring back their observations to the whole group.
  2. Begin every class with time to assemble different materials to think and work with, such as notebooks and different kinds of paper, various writing and drawing instruments, putty and blocks. Incorporate interaction with these tools throughout the lesson.
  3. Encourage and use gestures. If online, invite camera use, and back away to give students a wider view.
  4. Build in time for learners to tune in to how their body is feeling as a window into their emotional state.
  5. Provide opportunities for iteration, practicing a task in different contexts and with different tools and people that engage the body in different ways. The content or big idea stays the same, but shift how and with whom learners engage.
  6. Consider the classroom as extending out into the school grounds and neighbourhood. Allowing learners to experience a familiar location in a different way, with their classmates and teacher, can evoke new perspectives and thoughts.

Teachers, parents and learners can all change their expectations of what being “on task” looks like. Walking, running or dancing may not seem related to a particular task at hand, but these activities often help people do their best thinking.   Remember that activating the body activates the mind, so don’t mistake the motive to move.


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