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Teaching Opinion

Movement Helps Make ‘Learning Joyful & Magical’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 27, 2020 17 min read
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(This the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week:

How do you incorporate movement in your lessons, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

In Part One, Jenny Vo, Valentina Gonzalez, Cindy Garcia, and Bryan Harris contributed their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jenny and Valentina on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Kathy T. Glass, Annie Holyfield, Jonathon Medeiros, and Rachelle Dene Poth share their commentaries.

As I mentioned in Part One, many of the strategies mentioned in this series are adaptable to distance and hybrid learning, while you might have to wait until after a coronavirus vaccine to use others.

By the way, I’ll be publishing many new posts during August and September specifically about helping us all cope with distance and hybrid learning...

Three ways to incorporate movement

Kathy T. Glass, a former teacher, is a national consultant for K-12 audiences and an author of several books related to curriculum and instruction. She is invested in increasing educators’ capacity to hone their craft so they translate what she teaches to effective classroom practice. Check out her website:

For students to process and strengthen their understanding of content, teachers can orchestrate engaging activities aligned to learning targets that involve movement. “Physical movement strategies have a direct connection to students’ level of energy. This makes sense intuitively—movement is obviously related to increased energy. It also makes sense physiologically—movement increases blood flow to the brain which stimulates engagement” (Marzano & Pickering, 2011).

Teachers can incorporate movement opportunities in myriad ways, such as asking students to participate in a gallery walk, inside/outside circles, or four corners. They can distribute cards to students and ask them to walk around the classroom to find a partner or small group according to a task. For example, match words and definitions, renditions of paintings and an art period (e.g., Baroque, Impressionism, etc.), example of a sentence and its structure (e.g., compound, complex), characteristics or picture of an ecosystem and the type of habitat, and so forth. Here are some other ways in which teachers can incorporate movement effectively.

Drama. Surely drama provides a venue for physical movement as students act out scenes. For example, in history, students form small groups in which some dramatically represent the causes of an event while others portray the effects. In language arts, students act out scenes that depict a turning point in a work of fiction or nonfiction, such as a time when an individual faces an obstacle and struggles to confront it. In science, students can pantomime ways to practice safety precautions during lab work.

Human graphic organizer. Graphic organizers need not be a tool students solely design or complete on paper or electronically. Students can form a human graphic organizer. For example, they focus on a historical event and determine the series of actions that precipitated it. Then, they formulate a graphic organizer physically showing these causes by perhaps linking hands or intertwining feet. Movement can augment their physical positions with a push and pull of their bodies signifying the impact of particular events. Or they can show connections among characters or groups of people in civilizations by sitting, crouching, or standing to represent perhaps hierarchical relationships.

Tableau. This word literally means “living picture.” During a tableau collaborative activity, groups select episodes in a text that they deem pivotal, then invent and perform a tableau by freezing in a particular pose depicting them. In doing so, they imagine themselves in the situation the characters or individuals face. Students pretend that someone takes a snapshot that requires them to reflect intentional bodily stances, facial expressions, gestures, and positions of the highlighted scene or event to communicate meaning. Each group can create a different tableau, such as different characters reacting to a particular situation, episodes in an autobiography, or events in history. Teachers can use this sample assignment and brainstorming sheet of a tableau to use as is or adapt.

Activities relying on movement can present some disadvantages. Since time is a commodity, if teachers lack clarity in the directions, the activity can go array and waste precious class time. As well, the activity must serve a purpose and address learning targets; otherwise, the activity might be reduced to a fun experience with little impact on student learning.

Teachers can augment movement activities by asking students to demonstrate understanding of the learning target with individual accountability. For instance, after matching sentences with structures, they write a short paragraph utilizing a variety of sentence patterns. After groups present their tableaus, students submit a written response of their impressions. For the drama, students can submit a script. After constructing a human graphic organizer, students recreate it on paper or electronically and accompany it with a written explanation describing the connection among the component parts.

‘Kids crave play and magic’

Annie Holyfield teaches kindergarten and 1st grade at Joe Shoemaker School, an EL Education school in Denver. She believes anything is possible for all kids with hard work (and a little bit of fairy dust):

Any teacher can deliver information in a “sit and get” style that may reach some kids, but it won’t spark curiosity, joy, or engagement for most kids. Primary students and even elementary school kids crave play and magic. Adding movement to learning fuels students’ intrinsic hunger to learn, and if we do it well, the magic will last right through into adolescence and beyond.

Movement Builds Brains

I’m a kindergarten and 1st grade teacher, and what I know about teaching 5- to 7-year-olds, and really kids of any age, is that children need to be able to understand things firsthand, through their senses and their bodies. Like seeds, students need to land in the rich soil of a classroom where they can grow, move, and reach for the sky. The chant below is one my students learn and move to as we discover the life cycle of trees.

Abracadabra, Alaca-zeed!

Now watch as my students turn into seeds!!!

Look at them curl their body into small little seeds,

buried under the soil waiting to grow into gigantic trees.

Oh, what’s that?! It’s starting to rain!

The water is pouring down and helping you grow into a sprout.

Look at your tiny stem, and little leaves, out of the soil, your head is poking out.

And now with all of the sun and oxygen you are getting, you keep growing.

Your bodies, or trunks are getting taller, stronger, thicker.

Grow trees grow!!

Stretch your limbs up and out towards the sun, and sway in the breeze.

Oh my! Is that fruit you are starting to grow right next to your leaves?

Now, eat some of that fruit! Scatter the seeds, and sink back to the soil, down on your knees,

as you slowly sink into the earth, and once again become a seed.

By transforming themselves into seeds, my students playfully experience, learn, and practice complex concepts about the life cycle of trees. There are lots of ways in which movement fast-tracks learning. Movement increases the oxygen that goes to the brain, which makes it work better. It also invites the brain to store information through muscle memory, not just through rote recall.

In addition, students learn academic vocabulary and have a kinesthetic experience with oral language that includes prepositional phrases, complex verbs, and sentence structure. And most importantly, they share this experience, so that the joy of learning through social play reinforces their individual mastery of the content.

Movement also enables us to learn harder content. Let’s face it, the expectations on teachers and students today are immense. There is more data to collect and analyze, rigorous standards to master, greater reading and writing expectations for elementary kids. And because of that pressure, many districts and schools are cutting down on the opportunities for students to play. Embedding movement into academic curriculum can bring the play back. When my students are learning about weather, we investigate how rainbows are made through inquiry-based science experiments. We also do a close read-aloud partnered with active play in which students become water and sun, using their bodies to show light refracting. They each get a different rainbow-colored scarf to dance with when their color is called during the read-aloud. Using movement to act out this complex science concept gives more students access to and practice with the learning. When we reflect at the end of the year, “rainbows” is what most kids name as the favorite thing they learned in 1st grade.

Movement Helps You (and Your Students) Stay Sane

Trying to keep 30 kids engaged and organized all day long can drive you crazy. Some days, lessons are falling flat, kids are wily, and you just want to pull your hair out. You could raise your voice. You could take away recess (which is never effective) or you could dance. Structured movement can help your students stay on task joyfully and transition smoothly while getting a lot accomplished.

Discover the secret to your own sanity by trying these routines that help students know what expectations are, take charge of their roles and responsibilities, and have fun in the process.

Freeze dance cleanup: Establish one cleanup song and identify a DJ for the week. The DJ gets to pause the music to “freeze” students periodically to check their area during cleanup time and transition to the next task after cleanup.

Line up for zoo parade: My magic wand often transforms kids into objects, plants, or animals. For example, “Abracadabra, ala-ka-zake, watch as Zoryn starts to slither to line like a snake.” Magically, Zoryn will slither like a snake across the floor to get in line. I set the expectation at the beginning of the year that the goal is to act, not sound, like the animal—and silence is expected in our zoo line. If that expectation isn’t followed, the noise maker is transformed back into a human, who just gets to watch the parade from the sidelines.

Stretch Your Focus:

Mindful movement is exercise performed with awareness, moving smarter, not harder. Carve out a little time for yoga or stretching, perhaps after lunch or recess, to recenter and focus students’ body for the next round of learning. Teach students to be fully present in their bodies and to let go of their worries and their wiggles.

Cross the Midline: Students need active breaks throughout the day, but this doesn’t have to mean leaving the classroom or going to PE. Activities that require students to reach their arms or legs across the midline of the body also help the brain communicate across hemispheres, making it ripe for new literacy skills.

Dance Party: Dance parties are good for lots of reasons. But one of the most important reasons for them in my classroom is for me! When I start to sing or play certain songs, kids know I’m starting to get frustrated. When “Benny and the Jets” by Elton John, or “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli comes on, my crew knows I mean business. We dance together for a minute and we are all reminded that we are in this together. The song helps us reset our emotions and get back to our best teaching and learning.

The Point Is ... Just Bust a Move!

Movement helps make meaningful connections for students while making learning joyful and magical. There is no wrong way to incorporate movement into your class—just start! With a little magic in your step, you’ll be a better teacher, and your students will also be happier learners.

Using bodies to “express abstract ideas”

Jonathon Medeiros is a national-board-certified teacher who has been teaching and learning about English/language arts, rhetoric, empathy, and the joys of failure with Kauai High School Students for 12 years. An alumnus of the first cohort of Hope Street Group Hawaii Teacher Fellows, Jon represents Hawaii on the organization’s national Teacher Advisory Council. He is currently the state office teacher for the Leadership Institute and is the director of the Kauai Local Teacher Fellowship, now in its second year. Follow him on Twitter via @JonMedeiros:

I can’t sit still for long, unless laws or seat belts are holding me in place. I’m the guy on the airplane stretching in the galley. I’m the guy at the workshop standing behind his chair shifting his weight back and forth. I’m that teacher, pacing every square tile of his classroom and the courtyard outside, too. If I need to move, why should I expect my students to sit squashed behind little desks for 80+ minutes at a time?

The short answer is, I can’t and I don’t expect this, but that doesn’t mean I have always had a thoughtful and well-planned way to bring movement into my students’ lives. Quite the contrary; as with many things, I forgot to remember to think this through 13 years ago when I first started teaching. After a week of struggling with classes full of 9th grade boys reading at 5th grade levels (if I was lucky), I moved beyond frustration to reflection and set up some simple protocols that accidentally brought ritualized movement into our room.

First, I randomly assigned the students to groups of four or five. These became their “home groups” for the rest of the year. Then, I ritualized the moving from our solo-work seats to our group-work small circles. We practiced moving until we could transition quickly and with little fuss. Then I rethought my lesson plans. Each 80-minute class needed to be broken up (duh) and each needed to contain a variety of work. I decided that every day students would work alone, with a partner, with small groups, and as a whole class. I also decided that each day students would read, write, and talk. These decisions led to movement as a byproduct. Each transition was a chance to move, even just a little bit.

So that was it, for about eight or nine years. We rarely stayed in one place for more than 10 minutes and we rarely did the same type of learning work for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. The simple protocols in response to that first horrible week of school 13 years ago made a great difference but didn’t take us all the way. I knew there was some way I could take movement further and make the movement itself part of the learning, the way I know students learn by writing, by talking, by reading. I didn’t want it to just be a break between learning activities but I couldn’t quite figure it out.

I experimented a bit over the years, letting students know that they could express their analysis, for example, via a puppet show or dance project. Students almost never took me up on these offers, so I eventually took away the choice. After spending part of a summer studying theater in education with Sara Zatz, Ping Chong, and Kinan Valdez, among others, I was convinced of the cognitive benefits of movement. During the summer seminar, we were forced to use our bodies to develop and express abstract ideas. We were forced to interpret other people’s ideas by examining their poses and movements. We even learned to move their bodies, like peer editing and essay, to adjust the messages they were conveying. The struggle involved in figuring out how to express an idea with just our bodies led to deep learning as it forced us to think and talk and try and take risks and revamp and try again, etc.

This idea of using our bodies, alone or in conjunction with partners, stuck with me long after the seminar and has become a regular part of my language arts courses. Now, after working through texts alone, with partners, with small groups, with larger groups, after writing about these texts and our ideas, we frequently express our analysis in tableau, pictures made out of our bodies. Students work in their home groups to figure out how to express their argument or analysis, without words, with just their bodies. These tableaux are then presented to the whole class, and we discuss what we see, sometimes adjusting the pictures to change or develop the messages further.

Students were skeptical at first, but after just one session, they, too, felt joy of learning differently, of not just moving but of learning because of moving, because of our bodies. Students now spontaneously create tableaux while they are working in their home groups, as learning and communication aides. And long gone are the stunned, anxious, pained faces of students being forced to sit still for interminable minutes, replaced now with smiles, curiosity, and useful energy.

‘I used to think ... but now I think”

Rachelle Dene Poth is a Spanish and STEAM teacher at Riverview High School in Pittsburgh. She is also a lawyer and has a master’s in instructional technology. She is the president for the ISTE Teacher Education Network and communications chair for the Mobile Learning Network. Connect with her on Twitter at @Rdene915:

When I used to think of classrooms today, my image was of a room of students, seated in rows, attention directed to the teacher at the front of the room or involved in some activity individually while seated at their desks. Students are passively learning and without many opportunities to move from the seats where they spend a lot of time each day. Usually, it is the teacher doing most of the talking and moving in the room.

But by trying some more flexible learning environments, and creating opportunities to promote student choice and voice, we can design a more active learning space, where students are empowered and can move more freely. A space where students take on a more active role, become the creators and leaders, and a former teacher-centered classroom becomes a student-driven space. I was spending so much time talking and leading all of our activities and without many opportunities for the students to work with peers, to move around the room and to take more control of their learning.

I started to implement different teaching strategies that involved music and games, which led to getting students more actively involved in learning. It was quite simple to do through a variety of teaching strategies such as game-based learning. It added more fun into the classroom and built student excitement for learning. Students could move around, work on teams to practice and develop their skills in more active environments. Use of games can help to encourage students to master content by collaborating and engaging in more authentic and meaningful learning together. Offer different games, let students move and see what happens as a result! Students can create their own game by selecting the specific vocabulary they need to practice, use traditional or digital tools, and engage in more self-directed learning.

Try giving students the opportunity to go work together in different learning spaces in the classroom or to do some physical movements. They can take gallery walks within the classroom or spread around and work in unique spaces that are more comfortable to them. It’s a definite plus and gets them away from sitting so much. Instead, they can be more actively engaged in the learning experience.

Thanks to Kathy, Annie, Jonathon, and Rachelle for their contributions!

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