Throughout childhood, abstract learning is an outgrowth of things kids learn in concrete ways in their own bodies, through movement. For example, understanding of math begins with a child’s experience of moving forward and backward in space. This is the basis for their understanding of addition and subtraction. The child who has difficulty moving backwards may also have trouble understanding the concept of subtraction.
In her book, Teaching the Moving Child: OT Insights That Will Transform Your K-3 Classroom, author Sybil M. Berkey makes a case for the value of collaboration between occupational therapists (OT) and teachers in the classroom from kindergarten through third grades. The teacher is the expert on learning and the OT is the expert on movement and sensory processing. I would propose this valuable collaboration should also extend throughout the elementary years.
Many educators, psychologists, and professionals working with children have explored and researched the link between learning and movement. Berkey traces our understanding of this relationship starting with Jean Piaget (1896-1980), who was a biologist. He recognized the sensorimotor period (birth – 2 years) of development as a time when the child engaged in movement and physical experiences in the environment. He believed that it is during this period that the child interacts physically with objects and this physical knowledge is mentally transformed into abstract concepts as the child plays and manipulates materials in the environment.
Maria Montessori (1870-1952), a physician and educator, designed her educational approach to have “continuity” between the body and the mind. She saw mental development as being connected with and dependent upon the child’s development of motor skills. She had observed how young people learned best when engaged in purposeful activity rather than simply being fed information. Thus, in Montessori’s method, manipulation of objects is linked directly to learning. She designed a series of activity sequences, integrating the work of other psychologists and educators of her time and integrating their ideas and developing them further. Her materials were developed based on her observations of the child’s interaction with blocks, beads, shapes and everyday objects. Each was designed to teach the child specific skills and impart particular information through direct experience. She recognized that children like to be engaged in real life tasks and she considered her classroom to be a community of learners. She was the first educator to implement use of child-sized furniture and tools.
A. Jean Ayres (1920-1988), an occupational therapist and educational psychologist, recognized the relationship between sensory integration and learning disabilities. She recognized the role of movement as a mechanism to organize the nervous system. She saw learning as a hierarchy that begins with organization of sensation for functional use and progresses to higher integrative functions such as thinking and learning. She noticed that many children with learning disabilities exhibited movement patterns that were poorly planned and disorganized in their execution. Ayres’ method of therapeutic intervention, which is still practiced today, uses movement and engagement in activities designed to expose the child to graded stimuli in order to elicit “adaptive responses” from the child. During sensory integrative therapy, the child must simultaneously respond to multi-sensory motor and cognitive challenges, which she found improves the efficiency of the movement-learning link.
Educator, Howard Gardner, expanded our view of cognition with his theory that there is not just one type of intelligence. His theory suggests that there are multiple forms of intelligence (7-10) that each individual has in different amounts. Gardner initially proposed seven primary forms: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intra personal (e.g., insight, meta cognition) and interpersonal (e.g., social skills), and has subsequently identified 3 more that some people have. According to Gardner, the implication of the theory is that learning/teaching should focus on the intelligences that are the strength areas for each person.. A further implication of the theory is that testing should measure all forms of intelligence, not just linguistic and logical-mathematical. This theory of intelligence supports the supposition that there are many ways to teach and to learn and different children need different pathways to learning. Some may even learn best through movement.
Berkey points out that our current educational system uses language and writing almost exclusively as a means of teaching and measuring learning. This focus on the language area diminishes the need for children to move and to engage in the world of mythical thinking. She points out the value of oral language, storytelling, rhyme, rhythm and pattern, imagery and humor, mystery, and play as cognitive tools and as companions to movement.
Berkey then summarizes recent research in neuroscience (since 1970 or so) that shows the link between the brain, the body, and the mind. “Current neuroscience investigations depict an elegantly coactive system of dependent or synchronized circuits that are delicately balanced in the active, typically developing child…all movement in service to grade-level expectations is intimately connected with learning, thinking, feeling, doing, and attending.” (p 26) Current research focuses on the cerebellum, the small structure at the back of the brain, tucked under the cortex. We used to believe its function was solely involved with control and timing of movement. Scientists now understand that the cerebellum is also involved in information processing, mental tasks, and sensory perception and function. In addition, it is involved with motivation, emotion, and memory storage of learned behaviors. Once a skill is established, the role of the cerebellum decreases. This supports the idea that the cerebellum is important in learning and in developing automaticity (the capacity to do a task automatically, such as being able to write while you think). This means that higher centers of the brain are freed up for more complex and conscious thought. The cerebellum also prepares the brain for learning and information processing by providing a baseline level of arousal, meaning the basic level of alertness needed to learn. The cerebellum is activated by the pull of gravity on the body as well as by movement. Without movement, the cerebellum is not activated, and the brain may not be alert enough to learn.
The evidence is clear; moving and learning are linked. This means that we need to find ways to get our kids moving. We need to get them to turn off the television, put down their handheld games and go outside. It means that in the classroom, even having kids take a “stand up and stretch” break for 2 minutes is very valuable. Research shows that students who are physically fit do better academically and physical activity programs promoted improvement in attitude, discipline, self-esteem, behavior, and creativity.
So, what kinds of things can we do to promote a more active lifestyle for our kids? Advocate for recess and PE at your child’s school. When your child has recess or outdoor play time taken away because he/she did not finish work, discuss this issue with the teacher. Withholding recess is actually counter-productive to the goal of getting children to do more and better work. Children need recess to prime the system to learn more and to function maximally upon returning to the classroom. Talk to your child’s teacher about having the whole class take short movement breaks periodically throughout the day to optimize learning. [Note: this is especially important in COVID times when many children are doing many hours of virtual learning online in front of a screen.]
Outside of school, make sure you child is not watching television and engaging with electronics to the exclusion of more active pursuits. Kids need time to just run, jump, throw, catch, dance, skate, ride bikes etc. They also benefit immensely from participation in more structured activities such as soccer teams, little league, swim lessons or swim team, karate class, gymnastics, dance, fencing, basketball, football, rowing. Know your child and find movement activities that fit with his/her style. Some children love the competitive nature of team sports, while others prefer to engage in activities where competition is not a factor. Whatever your child’s interests, there is an activity out there that he will enjoy.
Want to learn more?
Check out Sybil Berkey’s book, Teaching the Moving Child: OT Insights That Will Transform Your K-3 Classroom. In addition to a thorough exploration of the link between movement and learning, she includes other topics such as: fine motor development, handwriting and sensory strategies for school.
Visit Howard Gardner’s site to learn more about his theory of Multiple Intelligence, check out this site:
To learn more about his current work, look here:
Check out our list of favorite books to learn more about A. Jean Ayres’ sensory integration theory and how it has evolved over the years.