When we consider movement education, we tend to think first in terms of the child's physical development. Cognitive development doesn't readily come to mind. Yet there is increasing evidence that because a child's earliest learning is based on motor development, so too is the learning that follows.
Studies of how young children learn have proven they especially acquire knowledge experientially - through play, experimentation, exploration, and discovery. More recently, research conducted on the topic of learning styles has shown children acquire knowledge using different modalities(visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic). Although students have strengths and weakness in certain modalities, most students learn with all their modalities; and many who are doing poorly in school are primarily tactile or kinesthetic learners (Reiff, 1992).
As Confucius said, "What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I know." Exploring a concept through movement gives children an opportunity to do and know. It helps make the abstract "concrete" - no matter what content area is being explored. Following are suggestions of how you can use movement to promote learning in the content areas of art, language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.
Play a mirror game by facing the children, creating different shapes, and challenging them to match each shape, as though they were your mirror reflection. When the children are developmentally ready, ask them to show you wide, narrow, crooked, long, short, flat, and eventually pointed, angular, and oval shapes.
Shapes and colors can be explored in tandem by providing pictures or examples of objects in various colors (e.g., a yellow banana; a red apple; a green plant) and asking the children to demonstrate the shape of each object. An alternative is to mention a color and ask what it brings to mind. The children can then either take on the shape of the objects mentioned or become them (e.g., if the color green reminded some children of frogs, they could depict the movement of frogs).
To explore the concept of texture, gather items of various textures(e.g., rope, satin, burlap, feathers, a beach ball, a stuffed animal) for the children to see and feel. Talk to them about how each item feels or makes them feel (i.e., feathers might make them feel ticklish). Then ask them to demonstrate through movement.
The possibilities for exploring language arts through movement are inexhaustible. Consider the simple act of children forming letters of the alphabet with their bodies or body parts, individually or with a partner. Talking about experiences, depicting them through movement, and then discussing the movement contribute to language development by requiring children to make essential connections between their cognitive, affective, and physical domains.
Rhythm is an essential ingredient in words and movement. The rhythmic patterns of poetry, in fact, often make it difficult for young children to just sit and listen. Therefore, when children clap the rhythm of words or rhymes, or move to the rhythm of a poem, they are increasing their knowledge of both rhythm and language. Clapping, stamping, or stepping to the rhythms of words can also familiarize them with syllables.
Any listening or sound identification activity helps develop auditory discrimination. Auditory sequential memory can be improved by giving the children a sequence of movement instructions to follow. You might, for example, present a challenge to clap twice, blink eyes, and turn around, lengthening the sequence as they are ready.
Acting out the meaning of individual words from stories, poems, or even spelling lists can lead to greater understanding. Through movement, children can begin to comprehend suffixes and, thus, the distinction between words like frightened and frightening. They can better grasp the meaning of action words like slither, stalk, pounce, or stomp, or descriptive words like graceful, smooth, or forceful. Preschool children can work in pairs to demonstrate the meanings of simple opposites like sad and happy, or up and down, with primary-grade partners challenged to demonstrate possibilities for tight versus loose or open versus closed.
Quantitative ideas are part of the language of mathematics, and movement is an ideal, tangible means of conveying many of these ideas to children. For example, activities involving levels and body shapes can demonstrate the concepts of big and little, long and short, high and low, wide and narrow. The movement element of force is all about light and heavy. Children can form pairs and groups, or a few children can work together.
To develop number awareness and recognition, the children must hear the numerals often. The simple activity Blast Off is appropriate for even the youngest children and can help them advance from rote memorization of numbers to actual comprehension. With this activity, the children squat low, pretending to be spaceships on their launching pads as you count backward from ten (with as much drama as possible). When you say, "Blast off!" the children "launch" themselves upward.
Children can also form the shapes of numbers with their bodies or body parts. To begin, assign numbers they must replicate, challenging them to try it at varying levels (i.e., standing, kneeling, sitting, lying). When the children are developmentally ready, you can ask them to choose numbers, say, between zero and four or five and nine. You can ask them to form the shapes of numbers with jump ropes and to trace those shapes with locomotor skills. Challenge them to show you their ages with their bodies, to form numbers in pairs or trios, or to draw invisible numbers in the air or on the floor with different body parts. Can their classmates guess the numbers drawn?
Although an activity like Blast Off can begin to familiarize children with counting backward, the process will have little meaning for them until they fully understand how to count forward. You can help them develop this understanding by counting beats clapped (e.g., clapping and counting 1-2-3 and asking them to echo); steps taken (giving the class a number and asking the children to take that many steps or hop that many hops); or repetitions performed (asking children to repeat a movement two more times).
Other possibilities include asking children to place a certain number of body parts on the floor or to balance on so many parts. Challenge them to count the number of times they're able to bounce a ball, the number of seconds they can hold a static balance, or the number of ways they can find to move the head, for example. With all these activities, you can instantly ascertain which children are having trouble counting.
Of course, any time children perform movements they are learning something about the functions of the human body. However, you can be more specific simply by focusing on certain functions. You can ask them to concentrate on the muscles, for example, by suggesting they think about the amount of muscle tension used to perform a movement, or the shape of the muscles when they freeze in different positions. Relaxation exercises that require the children to contract and relax the muscles are also excellent for developing an awareness of these important body parts. Similarly, relaxation exercises focusing on the breath can create an awareness of the lungs. You can introduce the function of the heart by asking children to find their pulse at restand after strenuous activity. Can they match their pulse's rhythm with the tapping of a hand or foot?
Specific scientific concepts appropriate for exploration with early elementary children include flotation, gravity, balance and stability, action and reaction, magnetics, machinery, and electricity. Balance and stability, gravity, and even flotation are naturals for exploring through movement.
Activities in which children pretend to walk as though sad, mad, proud, scared, tired, or happy are a good place to start because they focus on self-concept and give the children permission to express themselves. Children can also show with their hands or faces alone how these emotions look.
Possibilities abound for exploring holidays and celebrations through movement and music, especially since holidays offer a multitude of images that inspire movement. Children can move like black cats and ghosts at Halloween, flickering flames and melting candles at Hanukkah, elves and reindeer at Christmas, and on and on.
Field trips are perfect for stimulating movement experiences related to occupations. The children can impersonate everyone and everything they saw and heard.
Because transportation is specifically about movement, there is no lack of ideas for matching these two fields. To make problem solving part of your exercises, you can ask children to think of and depict modes of transportation found mainly in cities, on water, and in the sky, or ones that are motorless.
Of course, the preceding examples represent only a tiny fraction of the possibilities for using movement as an essential tool in the children's education. Every teacher, and every child, brings new ideas and new potential to the concept of moving and learning!
Rae Pica is a movement specialist and author of 10 books, including the 7-book Moving & Learning Series and the early childhood text, Experiences in Movement. Rae has served as a consultant for such organizations as the Sesame Street Research Department, Barney Family Magazine, YMCA of the USA, and the Head Start Bureau. She conducts movement and music workshops for parent, early childhood, and physical education groups throughout the country and in Canada.