Movement-Enhanced Learning

Several years ago, I was leading a holiday workshop and more kids than I expected showed up. There weren’t enough chairs to go around. Not wanting anyone to feel left out, I decided we would all go chairless. And that’s when I made a startling discovery: teaching children works better if there are no chairs in the room!

Numerous studies have documented the positive effects of movement over sitting when it comes to learning. Linking children’s bodies to cognitive ideas helps their brains encode concepts more deeply. Purposeful movement increases short-term recall and long-term retention of knowledge. It can motivate students to engage and gives them a greater sense of autonomy in the learning process. It even promotes creativity and, when interactive, can enhance social skills.

Note that it is purposeful movement – not unrelated physical activities – that has these positive effects. Dancing or doodling cartoon characters while listening to a story on peacemaking or a meditation lesson actually interferes with learning. But acting out the story while listening, or drawing pictures of oneself meditating while learning about meditation poses, supports learning. Researchers also say that a small amount of fidgeting has little effect on learning, because it doesn’t require much attention and therefore doesn’t distract children from their learning tasks.

So, if you want children to engage with and retain spiritual ideas, build purposeful movements into your lessons. Here are some ideas to try:

Body models. As you tell a story, invite children to embody characters in the narrative. This can be as simple as changing their facial expressions to match the emotions of various characters or involve full body poses (like statues). Children can also create vignettes (group statue poses) that show characters interacting.

Human labs. Don’t just talk about meditation, stress management, and emotional regulation. Instead, encourage children to try tensing and relaxing their muscles or slowing and speeding up their breath. Contrast pacing around a room when anxious with measured steps while walking a labyrinth. Explore the difference between an avoidance posture (hunched shoulders, head down) and a ‘making a difference’ posture (body straight, head up, hands holding a sign) as part of children’s preparation for a social justice march.

Draw it out. Rather than giving children a worksheet to complete, invite them to draw stories and ideas. Research shows retention rates twice as high when children draw concepts, whether on paper or via technology. You might ask children to create a spiritual journey journal, where they document what they are learning graphically. Children could also draw a graphic novel or visual script for an animated version of a story. For a lesson on ethical decision-making, invite them to design a visual model that reflects all parts of the process and how they are related.

Act it out. When you want children to explore a story from different perspectives, consider reenacting the story multiple times. Encourage children to take turns playing different characters so they experience the story from that viewpoint. Or role-play scenarios to bring lesson concepts to life. Imagine serving dinner in a shelter for those who are homeless. Ask children to act out the scenario from both their side as a server and as a shelter client.

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