If we want children to learn, we need to let them move

My eight-year-old can often be found hanging upside down. From monkey bars, in the branches of trees, and lately, with his dancing feet propped up on the back of the couch while reading a schoolbook.

“Are you… comfortable like that?” I ask him, mentally referencing the sit-up-straight and both-feet-flat-on-the-floor guidelines that were sent to parents during Zoom classes and at-home learning.

“Yup! I learn better in this direction ‘cause it’s all going right into my brain!” he answers before flipping the page. Unconventional studying positions aren’t only limited to my third-grader. Upstairs, I can hear the 13-year-old alternatively pacing his bedroom and drumming (loudly) on his desk as he prepares for an upcoming test.

“You’re supposed to be studying,” I yell up over the pounding.

“Yeah, I am, but I can’t concentrate if I’m sitting still!”

I don’t know why their wiggling and walking surprise me—I’m the same way. In fact, between writing this paragraph and the next I’ll pause for a 20-minute hike in the nearby woods so I can stretch my back and legs and refresh my mind.

Movement, it turns out, isn’t just good for adults trying to write their next sentence or who need a break from their computer screen. Through active play and physical activity, children studying at home and students from kindergarten through high school can boost their brain power, support their mental health, and build a wide range of competencies.

Play and movement at school

While navigating another unconventional school year, where much of the emphasis is on “getting back to normal” and “catching up,” what if we also make it an opportunity to prioritize mental and physical health by incorporating active play and movement—not as a replacement, but rather a complement to traditional learning strategies.

Whether it’s four-year-olds engaged in free play during class and in the school yard, third graders merging sports with their math and science class, or middle-schoolers absorbing a biology lesson while studying (and climbing!) schoolyard trees, research indicates that students become more engaged and attentive when we let them out of their chairs. Through play and movement, children can work on literacy skills and critical thinking, and successfully transfer skills across subjects while developing gross and fine motor skills.

Movement enhances learning

According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, children who have higher levels of physical activity have “consistently been shown to positively associate with a variety of academic performance factors, including cognitive functioning, academic behavior, and school grades.” The study, which collected data from over 37,000 U.S. children aged six to 17 years old, found that in addition to improving cognitive skills, physical activity may also positively impact classroom behavior.

Research also shows that children have improved concentration and attention when they spend time in green spaces. Co-author Dr. Anne Schutte recommends the implementation of green space around schools, daycares, and homes, and for children to spend time in natural environments—even if they end up covered in mud.

Movement and play in schools

Basketball and Tchaikovsky may be unlikely learning partners, but used together in the video below they’re encouraging hand-eye coordination, catching, and rhythm. Through movement, the whole body becomes an instrument for learning!

Paper and pencils aren’t the only way to practice math equations. What about an interactive learning game where quick feet and throwing skills are also used?

Sensory paths in school hallways or outdoor spaces are an opportunity for students to develop fundamental movement skills such as running, jumping, skipping, and hopping as they travel through hallways or play in the schoolyard. These paths can serve as a break from classroom anxiety or overstimulation, or be used as an active learning space for literacy and numeracy.

Help kids get up and moving

What can parents do to encourage and advocate for play and movement-based learning at their kids’ schools? Get involved with your school board and the home and school association to encourage programs such as Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL). Help facilitate fundraising for in-class equipment and outdoor classrooms and playgrounds, and champion for longer recess and outdoor play.

At home, whether it’s between Zoom classes or during homework, have your kids get up and dance while practicing their spelling words, take a brain break between math sheets, or bike to a nearby park to read under the trees. For active brains, they need active bodies, and who doesn’t want to see kids moving, learning, and having fun?

Play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner.”

-Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play

Photo courtesy of EcoKids.


Read more about movement, play, and learning:

Play is what we need: How cities responded when playgrounds were closed

12 ways to incorporate learning into your kids’ play

The power of play: Why outdoor child-led movement at school is important

6 ways kids should engage in “risky” play

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class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_date'> <input name='input_1' id='input_10_1' type='text' value='' class='datepicker mdy datepicker_no_icon gdatepicker-no-icon' placeholder='mm/dd/yyyy' aria-describedby="input_10_1_date_format" aria-invalid="false" aria-required="true"/> <span id='input_10_1_date_format' class='screen-reader-text'>MM slash DD slash YYYY</span> </div> <input type='hidden' id='gforms_calendar_icon_input_10_1' class='gform_hidden' value='https://activeforlife.com/content/plugins/gravityforms/images/datepicker/datepicker.svg'/></div><div id="field_10_13" class="gfield gfield--width-full gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><p>Only one kid per email address.</p> <p>Active Start is for children 4 and younger.</p></div><div id="field_10_4" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_hidden" ><div class='admin-hidden-markup'><i class='gform-icon gform-icon--hidden'></i><span>Hidden</span></div><label class='gfield_label' for='input_10_4' >Age When Submitted</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_4' id='input_10_4' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></div><div id="field_10_5" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_hidden" ><div class='admin-hidden-markup'><i class='gform-icon gform-icon--hidden'></i><span>Hidden</span></div><label class='gfield_label' for='input_10_5' >1st Birthday</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_5' id='input_10_5' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></div><div id="field_10_6" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_hidden" ><div class='admin-hidden-markup'><i 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