Movement and learning: How does that work?  

Have you heard of movement being used as a teaching tool? In some schools and early childhood centres, movement-based instruction aims to help children learn better while promoting physical, social, and emotional development. At a time when sedentary behaviors are rising among children and youth, any effort to engage them in any physical movement is a good thing.

How movement benefits learning

Research suggests that when children develop gross motor skills such as walking, running, and jumping, they are also developing their cognitive abilities. Researchers believe it’s because the main region of the brain responsible for motor skills—the cerebellum—is also connected to our visual processing, spatial perception, and cognitive abilities.

This means that when children use their brains to perform physical movements, they’re also exercising and developing many of the same neural pathways that serve cognitive performance and vice versa. Physical movement also causes more oxygen, water, and glucose to travel to their brains, so that too assists their cognitive activity.


Related read: Roundup of physical literacy programs in Canadian schools


This describes the basic theory behind movement in learning. But what does it look like in practice? And what about claims that pairing subjects such as math and language with movement actually enhances learning?

You can find teachers in a variety of schools and settings using movement in their teaching, but two education models in particular are probably best known for utilizing movement: Waldorf and Montessori.

Active learning in Waldorf schools

Waldorf education, also known as Steiner education, was conceived by Rudolf Steiner of Austria (1861-1925). The Waldorf approach aims to develop students’ academic, artistic, and practical skills in an integrated manner, and this includes incorporating physical movement [PDF] into some elements of instruction.

In the early childhood setting in particular, teachers in Waldorf schools have been known to direct children in physical movements while learning content. For example, teachers might lead the students in rhythmic movement and clapping while counting or practicing the alphabet. All forms of physical activity are also thought to better prepare the students for any sedentary academic work that might follow.

Movement in Montessori classrooms

Similar to Waldorf, the Montessori method developed by Maria Montessori (1870-1952) aims to support children to develop in a holistic manner—physically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively. Part of the approach includes integrating physical movement into daily play and learning activities.

Montessori recognizes that children’s early development is intimately connected with physical movement, with the understanding that movement stimulates their brains in a different manner than when they are passively watching and listening. Maria Montessori is said to have written: “One of the most important practical aspects of our method has been to make the training of the muscles enter into the very life of the children so that it is intimately connected with their daily activities.”

Again we can assume that the cerebellum is involved in this process—busily developing those neural networks that are common to motor skills, spatial perception, and cognition processes in the brain.

Fun fact: Maria Montessori was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for her innovations in educational theory.


Related read: Building your child’s brain through physical literacy


Classroom examples

Waldorf and Montessori schools are perhaps the most recognized proponents of movement in learning, but the same theory applies when teachers of any description in any school bring intentional movement into their instruction. You can integrate movement with learning through outdoor play or gardening, constructive play such as building with blocks, exploratory play such as hide-and-seek and scavenger hunts, and functional play such as ball tossing while learning vocabulary and story-building, or dancing and singing to practice math addition and subtraction.

While many of the practices associated with learning and movement are not new, the brain science supporting them is still relatively young. With continuing research into child brain development, we may begin to see even more connections established between physical activity and learning in coming years.

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