To Boost Learning, Just Add Movement

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To Boost Learning, Just Add Movement

Cult of Pedagogy 2019-03-31

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If you were to start singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” right now, I bet you’d have a hard time keeping your hands still. That’s because most of us who know the song learned it with gestures, and things we learn with physical movement tend to stick.

We can apply that same principle to classroom learning, using movement to enhance learning from preschool all the way through college. Let’s take a look at what the research says about movement-based learning, then explore six different ways you can add more movement to your instruction.

The Research on Movement

The concept of “learning styles” has overwhelmingly been labeled a myth by researchers, so attempting to determine which of your students are kinesthetic learners will not be a good use of your time. What is worth your time is using movement when working with all learners, because plenty of research backs that up.

  • In general, people learn better when information is presented in more than one way (Sankey, Birch, & Gardiner, 2010). In other words, if we take in information through more than one sense, we’re more likely to encode it in long-term memory. This would include visual, verbal, and kinesthetic modes of learning.
  • Specifically, the use of gestures results in more enduring learning than learning without gestures (Cook, Yip, & Goldin-Meadow, S, 2010). So even the addition of a few small hand gestures can have an impact on how well students remember material.
  • Study after study shows that physical activity activates the brain, improves cognitive function, and is correlated with improved academic performance (Donnelly & Lambourne, 2011). This means any kind of physical activity, not just movement associated with the material we’re learning, can benefit students academically.

Six Ways to Add Movement to Instruction

1. Total Physical Response

Developed for use with second-language learners in the 1960’s (Asher, 1966), Total Physical Response simply has students act out physical gestures to represent vocabulary words. Shown to be highly effective with both children (Singh, 2011) and adults (Carruthers, 2010), TPR can also be used to help learners remember new vocabulary terms in their native language. In other words, it can be used in any content area, with any student.

This video from the Teacher Toolkit shows Texas teacher Michael Rowland using TPR with his third grade students, who are English learners.


And here is Craig Gaslow, another Texas teacher who teaches AP Human Geography, demonstrating how he uses TPR to teach three different models of diffusion:


Finally, here are Scott Causer’s high school students demonstrating a few earth science processes using TPR:


2. Tableau/Snapshot

In this strategy, students create a physical “snapshot” with their bodies, a still picture that represents an idea.

This example, demonstrated by 4th grade teacher Stefannie Cundiff, comes from Teacher Toolkit:


Another example is explained in this Slides presentation by Tyler Jacobs, an Idaho-based high school ELA and social studies teacher. Click the image below to view the slideshow in a new window:


3. Simulations

In these, students demonstrate a concept with some kind of motion or interactivity. They could represent non-human components, like in the examples below, or they might actually take on the role of humans in a re-enactment of an event.

The first example comes from the University of British Columbia, where electrical engineering professor Matthew Yedlin has students simulate the difference between linear growth and exponential growth:


The second example, a simulation of the circulatory system, comes from Michelle Cliche, who teaches grades 4 and 5 in London, Ontario, Canada.


Finally, here’s a different kind of simulation demonstrated by Amy Tepperman, where participants show fractions by placing different body parts on the floor, Twister-style:


An important note about simulations: If you are doing simulations about historical periods or events, proceed with caution. Many, many teachers have ended up traumatizing students with these types of simulations. This article from Teaching Tolerance explores the topic in depth.


4. Songs with Movement

Songs are another powerful way to teach concepts to students, and if the songs also incorporate movement, even better.

Dan Adler, a 6th grade science teacher in Lawrence, MA, regularly uses songs with physical movements to help his students remember challenging concepts. In this video, students demonstrate “Bodak Particles,” a song about phase change sung to an instrumental version of Cardi B’s song “Bodak Yellow.” (Get a copy of the lyrics here.)


5. Virtual and Augmented Reality

The experiences offered by virtual and augmented reality allow students to move around in and interact with virtual objects and spaces in ways that would be difficult if not impossible to pull off in the real world.

Augmented Reality layers digital enhancements on top of objects in the real, physical world. Using a device, like a smartphone, loaded with AR software, users point it at a picture or physical object, and the software brings up some kind of digital element like a 3D animation, text, or a video. (Pokémon Go is an example of an AR game.)

One set of AR tools that have tremendous learning potential comes from a company called Merge. Their Merge Cube is a handheld cube that can “become” a variety of objects when paired with the Merge Goggles, as shown below:


Virtual Reality immerses the user in a 360-degree environment, a computer-generated simulation, viewable through a VR headset, and allows them to move through and interact with that environment.

One outstanding source for VR experiences is Google Expeditions, which offers tours to over 500 different locations: historical landmarks, national and state parks, underwater sites, and up-close studies of scientific phenomena.


And if you don’t find the exact tour you want, you and your students can even create your own expeditions with Google Tour Creator.


6. Brain Breaks

I left this one for the end because it’s the easiest to implement. This brain breaks guide from the University of Texas summarizes the research on the connection between movement and academic achievement and offers dozens of ideas for brain breaks that can be put into action immediately.

Brain break videos are super easy to find on YouTube, especially for younger kids. My daughter came home from first grade years ago excited to demonstrate this one for me:


But what about older kids? High school math teacher David Sladkey has written a book of brain breaks that are great for all ages, even middle and high school kids who may not be as comfortable with the Tooty Ta. in this video, students demonstrate a simple toe-tapping brain break:


Tips for Getting Started

  • Don’t overdo it. Attempting to add a movement component to every concept students learn would not only be too time-consuming, it could also get old, shifting from a fun novelty to something that causes students to slump over in their seats and say, Not THAT again!!
  • Get input from students. When coming up with gestures or movements, you don’t have to rely solely on your own brain. Ask students to help you come up with ideas. Involving students in the process will help them remember concepts better and will increase the likelihood that you’ll end up with really effective movements.
  • Use movement for retrieval practice. Rather than using movement in a single lesson, apply the principles of retrieval practice by repeating the movements in short practice sessions, spacing them out over time, and interleaving concepts with one another.
  • For younger students, meaningful gestures matter more. While adults learn from both iconic gestures (those that have some meaning in relation to the concept they are connected to) and beat gestures (those that have no inherent meaning but are just tied to particular “beats” in a sentence or phrase), younger children learned more from iconic gestures (So, Sim Chen-Hui, & Low Wei-Shan, 2012). So when working with younger students, try to make the gestures match the concepts in some way.


Asher, J. J. (1969). The total physical response approach to second language learning. The modern language journal, 53(1), 3-17.

Carruthers, S. W. (2010). The total physical response method and its compatibility to adult ESL-learners. Retrieved from

Cook, S. W., Yip, T. K., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010). Gesturing makes memories that last. Journal of memory and language, 63(4), 465-475.

Donnelly, J. E., & Lambourne, K. (2011). Classroom-based physical activity, cognition, and academic achievement. Preventive medicine, 52, S36-S42.

Sankey, M., Birch, D., & Gardiner, M. (2010). Engaging students through multimodal learning environments: The journey continues. In Proceedings ASCILITE 2010: 27th annual conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education: Curriculum, technology and transformation for an unknown future (pp. 852-863). University of Queensland.

Singh, J. P. (2011). Effectiveness of total physical response. Academic Voices: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 1, 20-22.

So, W. C., Sim Chen-Hui, C., & Low Wei-Shan, J. (2012). Mnemonic effect of iconic gesture and beat gesture in adults and children: Is meaning in gesture important for memory recall?. Language and Cognitive Processes27(5), 665-681.

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