How to make learning a moving experience

How physical activity enhances learning

08/09/2011  |  Jean Blaydes
Physical Education

How do we motivate the unmotivated learner? Can we increase academic performance?  Can we give every child every advantage to learn?

The answers to these questions may lie in the neuroscience that supports the link of movement to learning.  As educators, learning is our business. We must understand the basic functions of the brain as it applies to learning. How does the brain work?  How does the brain remember and why do we forget? How does the brain develop? Where in the brain do we pay attention?  When educators understand these concepts we can better teach our children.

One of the latest neuroscience findings is that exercise, physical activity and movement boost brain function. When we exercise the brain benefits first and changes at a molecular level.  Exercise has been shown to increase memory, regulate mood, and prepare the brain for learning.  A study in 1999 and 2006 confirms that exercise grows brain cells, a process called neurogenesis.  Dr. John Ratey says that exercise fertilizes the brain by increasing BDNF, a growth factor in our brain.  Exercise, physical activity and movement help to balance brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that put our brains and bodies back into balance.

These benefits of exercise for the brain are a good justification for daily, quality physical education.  However, many of our students do not have daily PE.  So how can we incorporate more movement, physical activity and exercise into the classroom setting?  By using strategies to teach academics kinesthetically in the classroom, gymnasium, music room and school-wide, we can capitalize on brain research, academic standards and developmentally appropriate methodology to anchor learning for students in a fun and motivating way.

Studies have shown that this method of teaching can increase academic performance.  A study released in May of 2011 showed that these strategies increased the academic performance of the students in a title I school in Charleston, South Carolina.  The study, entitled “Exercising while Learning Boosts Test Scores,” concluded that when physical activity was combined with academic skills, elementary students retained more.

Another, informal study in at Stall High School in the Charleston County School District in South Carolina was conducted using 11 high school girls who had been identified by the school counselor as needing extra support. Issues like frequent absences, numerous office referrals and failing grades had put these students at risk for failure or drop out.

For six weeks, the girls came to a specialized learning room four days per week for 30 minutes.  The room included various activities, exercise and fitness equipment and technology, with academic reinforcement at each station. For example, as a student balanced on a balancing board, she also threw and caught a beanbag while skip counting the multiplication tables. The room was decorated and painted to illustrate the regions of the brain and the functions of the brain in each region.  The regions include the frontal lobe, the pre-frontal cortex, the temporal lobe, the occipital lobe, the parietal lobe, and the brainstem. Stations included the body, the legs, muscles, bones, hands and feet, eyes, the brain, and the heart.  As the student performed activities in each station, she gained an understanding of how the body and the brain work together.

After just six weeks, behavior improved drastically which reduced the number of office referrals.  One girl who had 22 office referrals in the first semester had zero at the end of the six weeks. Whereas each girl had been failing numerous classes previously, at the end of six weeks four girls failed one class each and seven girls failed zero classes!  Not only did behavior and grades improve, but attendance improved as well. When interviewed each girl stated that she saw a transformation by using exercise to help understand concepts.  This study illustrates how we can motivate the unmotivated learner even on the high school level.

Another study done by Hillman and Castelli in April 2009 shows that when students exercised by walking on a treadmill for 20 minutes their brains were much more ready to learn as oppose to students who had been sitting for the same amount of time. The brain scans speak for themselves.

Translating neuroscience into classroom practice

Educators want to make the very best use of their time in the classroom. Many classrooms rely on academic time where students sit for long periods in order to learn. However, the brain research supports the idea that children need to move to learn.  According to the educational research, many of our children preferred to process new information kinesthetically using more of their senses to understand and interact with learning. Also, the brain prefers to learn in small chunks of information with time to process and consolidate data.

Dr. John Medina, author of “Brain Rules” says that the chair is the least effective environment for learning.  Humans are made to move. When the human sits for longer than about 17 minutes plus or minus 2, the physiology of the brain and the body starts to change. Blood flow is impeded as the humans sits at 90° angles at the hips and knees and ankles.  The lower limbs are not moving which impedes the flow of BDNF, the brains fertilizer. When a human is still for long periods of time, the brain signals the body to go to sleep by increasing melatonin production. Therefore, it is imperative that students move about every 20 minutes. Teachers can reinforce learning by using these techniques to help with memory retention and to prepare the brain for learning.

What does this look like in the classroom?  Let’s say a teacher is teaching a lesson on punctuation. To reinforce the concept she uses a lesson called “Action Punctuation.” She divides her class into six groups. Each group is given a punctuation mark: period, question mark, exclamation point, comma, apostrophe or quotation mark.   Each group is to create an action and a sound for their punctuation mark that helps others to understand the symbol and the function of the punctuation mark.  Then the teacher reads a passage and as a punctuation mark occurs the group with that punctuation mark acts out its sound and action. The whole class then acts out the same sound and action. The teacher continues until all the punctuation marks have been performed. Then the teacher displays a passage on the board with blanks where punctuation marks should occur. Together the class reads the passage and inserts the correct punctuation mark using the action and sound for each.  After this practice students are ready to translate their learning to the paper.   This is called embodied cognition, using actions, gestures and movements to help understand the concept. The method and kinesthetic transfer involves more of the senses in learning, which enables the brain to pull from several areas where the information has been stored giving the child more advantage to learn.

Healthy, active students make better learners. Using movement, physical activity and exercise in teaching strategies will reach many of more students and move them forward instead of leaving them behind.

(For a list of references e-mail [email protected].)Jean Blaydes is an internationally known educational consultant, speaker and author on the subject of how brain research supports the link of movement to enhanced learning. Jean taught for 27 years in the classroom, in Physical Education and as a college professor.
Comments & Ratings

  4/30/2012 10:11:34 AM
Steve Murphy 

This article is from SEEN Vol 13.2, pages 78-79. If you have any questions, please email [email protected] Thanks!
  4/30/2012 8:21:48 AM

The bibliography 
Well written. Where can I get access to the volume and issue number? As well as the page no of the magazine?