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Letting kids move in class isn’t a break from learning. It IS learning.

Students in Robbi Giuliano’s fifth-grade class sit on yoga balls as they complete their assignments at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School in West Chester, Pa. (MATT ROURKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Last July I published a post titled “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today.” It hit a nerve and became one of the most-read pieces on this blog last year, with readers continuing to click on it, along with related posts, such as “The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class” and “A therapist goes to middle school and tries to sit still. She can’t. Neither can the kids.”

Here is a new post on the same subject, by Aleta Margolis, founder and executive director of the Center for Inspired Teaching, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that works with teachers, principals, and entire school faculties to foster the best teaching practices. Margolis writes about how teachers incorporate movement into lessons to make it part of learning, not just a break from it.

By Aleta Margolis

As an educator for the past 25 years, I’m delighted that our national conversations about teaching and learning are beginning to recognize that excellent instruction engages students intellectually, emotionally, and physically. We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the development of young minds. Yet despite research proving the lasting benefits of serious play, too many of our classrooms remain still, silent places, lacking any element of physical movement.

It’s critical to maintain time for recess and free play that builds students’ balance systems (as powerfully described by Angela Hanscom), but we also need to emphasize the important role that physical movement can and should play within the classroom. Movement is a powerful teaching tool, and when we as teachers thoughtfully incorporate physical elements into instruction, we elevate the learning experience. As part of my work at Center for Inspired Teaching over the past 20 years, I train teachers to provide this type of active, student-centered instruction because it’s how students learn best.

The teachers we train learn to create lessons in which students use their bodies to explore the math and literacy concepts their brains are learning. Teachers who’ve graduated from our programs are using movement to teach in classrooms across the District, across all disciplines and grade levels.

One teacher has her students measure their pulse and breath rates before and after a set of jumping jacks and then asks them to create graphs to display these results.

Another teacher makes a large outline of Washington D.C.  using masking tape on the floor of his classroom and then has his students, brought together from schools across the District, map out the city’s geography by walking to and from important sites — the Capitol, the White House, the Potomac River, and also their homes, their schools, their playgrounds.

A third teacher has his students estimate the perimeter of their playground and then physically measure the distance using their own feet and the standard foot on a ruler.

Vigorously shaking a container of cream to create butter teaches students about the difficult realities of frontier life and also about the science of their own bodies, about lactic acid and what happens when muscles are used too hard for too long. When students time each other running for 30 seconds, they get to practice using basic time measurements and also to begin asking big picture questions about advanced issues such as time perception. Why does 30 seconds feel so long when you’re out of breath but so short when you’re playing a game?

A graduate of one of our programs recently described the wealth of learning that can derive from physical movement, in this instance from an activity she calls “indoor ice skating“:

Thanks to my training, I understood the benefits of this play. By having to hold the paper plate to the ground with their feet, the kids were using concentration skills. . . . The gliding actions were helping to build their muscles and tone their gross motor skills. The act of having to navigate their skating around other kids, to take care of themselves and others and share the space, was helping them work on self-control and peer-to-peer social-emotional development. The fun and the joy of it were helping to get their blood pumping and adrenaline boosting.

As this teacher describes, movement isn’t a break from learning; movement is learning, and the opportunities for thoughtful exploration in the classroom are endless.

Inviting students to participate physically can feel like inviting classroom chaos, and it’s critical to recognize and respect that when teachers ask students to participate physically, we’re asking them to complete far more complex, demanding work than just sitting and listening.

So how do you teach teachers to take this next step in building their practice? The answer lies in ensuring professional development engages teachers the way we expect them to engage their students — physically as well as intellectually. By taking teachers completely out of the typical training model, which requires them only to stare passively at PowerPoint slides, my colleagues and I ask teachers to tap into new ways of problem solving, community building, and communicating with those around them.

Incorporating movement-based activities can help learners of all ages articulate and internalize new ideas, and this process invites adult participants to leave their comfort zone and reexamine their roles as both teachers and learners. They explore the relief that students feel at being invited to move, as well as the uncertainty and shyness that can arise when something new and unexpected is introduced.

After participants experience this shift in mindset, my colleagues and I then focus on shifting classroom practice, training teachers to implement research-based strategies to infuse movement into lessons through careful planning, the setting of clear expectations, and the creation of meaningful work that authentically requires students to be fully engaged, in both body and mind.

It’s difficult to train teachers this way and equally difficult to teach this way, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it because higher-level instruction, provided by teachers who have strong training and support, elevates classrooms from static places where we create forced fidgeters and compliers to vibrant learning environments that build expert problem solvers, inventors, and creators. For school to be a place where the talents of young people are cultivated rather than extinguished, we need to give students the freedom and responsibility to tinker, explore, test, prod, and physically interact with the world around them.

You may also be interested in:

Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today

The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class

A therapist goes to middle school and tries to sit still. She can’t. Neither can the kids.