“We have spent years and resources struggling to teach people to learn, and yet the standardized achievement test scores go down and illiteracy rises. Could it be that one of the key elements we’ve been missing is simply movement?” (Hannaford, 1995, p. 16)
Thanks to new insights in brain research, we now know that “early movement experiences are beneficial to optimal brain development” (Gabbard, 1998, p. 1). In fact, early movement experiences are considered essential to the neural stimulation needed for healthy brain development. Still, many early childhood professionals are reluctant to incorporate movement into the curriculum. They may feel there just isn’t enough time in the day or they may lack a gym or other such space in which to conduct movement activities.
Both of these issues can be addressed with one simple solution: using movement across the curriculum. Typically, the early childhood curriculum consists of experiences in six major content areas – art, language arts, mathematics, music, science, and social studies. Following are examples, adapted from Pica (2000), of how movement can be used to explore each of these content areas.
Concepts like shape, size, spatial relationships, and line are part of both art and movement education. Whenever children arrange their bodies in the space around them, it can be said they’re exploring artistic concepts as well as physical ones. When they move into different levels, in different directions, along different pathways, and in relation to others and to objects, they’re increasing their spatial awareness.
Shapes and colors can be explored with movement by providing pictures or examples of objects in various colors (e.g., a yellow banana, a red apple, or 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).
The possibilities for exploring language arts through movement are inexhaustible. Consider acting out the meaning of individual words from stories, poems, or even spelling lists. Through movement, children can begin to comprehend 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.
For a counting activity, ask 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 seconds they’re able to 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.
When a child tiptoes to soft music, stamps her feet to loud music, moves in slow motion to Bach’s “Air on the G String,” dances rapidly to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” sways to a 3/4 meter, or skips to a piece in 6/8, she is experiencing the music on many levels.
To experience movement and music together, sing the scale to the children, explaining how each successive note is higher in pitch than the previous one. If possible, demonstrate on a keyboard or show the scale written on a staff. Ask the children to sing the scale with you. Then ask them to place their hands in their laps, raising them a little bit higher with each note you sing. Once the children have grasped the concept, challenge them to demonstrate with their whole bodies, beginning close to the floor and getting as close to the ceiling as possible.
Many themes typically explored in classrooms fall under the science category, including the human body – body parts and their functions, the senses,hygiene, and nutrition, seasons, and other topics related to nature – weather, animals, plants, and the ocean. All of these naturally lend themselves to movement experiences.
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.
Lessons in social studies for young children begin with the children themselves because that is where their world begins. Self-concept, therefore, is a logical starting point. Ask children to pretend to walk as though sad, mad, proud, scared, tired, or happy. Can they display these emotions with hands or faces alone?
Possibilities abound for exploring such social studies themes as holidays and celebrations, occupations, and transportation. For the latter, you can ask children to think of and depict modes of transportation found mainly in cities, on water, and in the sky. Introduce the children to traffic lights by playing a movement game with three sheets of paper – one red, one yellow, and one green. When you hold up the green sheet, the children walk. They walk in place when they see the yellow sheet and come to a complete stop when you hold up the red.
Of course, the examples presented throughout this article represent only a tiny fraction of possibilities for using movement as an essential tool in children’s learning experiences. Every teacher and every child brings new ideas and new potential to the concept of moving and learning.
Rae Pica is a movement education consultant and an adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of 13 books, including the text Experiences in Movement, the Moving & Learning Series, and the recently released Wiggle, Giggle, and Shake: 200 Ways to Move & Learn. Rae is nationally known for her workshops and keynotes and has shared her expertise with such groups as Children’s Television Workshop, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, and Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues.
Docheff, D. M. (1992). Hey, let’s play! A collection of P.E. games and activities for the classroom teacher. Elma, WA: Dodge R Productions.
Gabbard, C. (1998). Windows of opportunity for early brain and motor development. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 69(8), 54-55, 61.
Hannaford, C. (1995). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Arlington, VA: Great Ocean Publishers.
Pica, R. (2000). Experiences in movement, 2nd ed. Albany, NY: Delmar.
One Activity – Seven Content Areas
An activity like “Ducks, Cows, Cats, and Dogs” (adapted from Docheff, 1992) can actually touch on all seven content areas. For this activity, whisper the name of one of the four “title” animals in each child’s ear. The children then get on hands and knees, with eyes closed, and begin to move, making the sound of their animals. The object of the game is for like animals to find one another.
Obviously, this exercise provides experience with the locomotor skill of creeping, making it a physical education activity. However, because it is also a listening – or sound discrimination – activity, it falls under the headings of music and language arts; and by requiring cooperation, in the category of social studies. Because the topic of animals and the sense of hearing are emphasized, the content area of science is involved, too. The children can even be asked to count the numbers of animals in each group, thereby including mathematics. Then, to put a finishing touch on the experience, you can invite the children to draw their animals.
More Movement Ideas
- Moving & Learning across the Curriculum by Rae Pica (Delmar, 1999)
- Moving to Discover the USA: 142 Action Rhymes, Songs, and Games by Mike Lee & Rhonda Clements
- Playing to Learn: Activities and Experiences that Build Learning Connections by Carol Seefeldt (Gryphon House, 2001)
- Wiggle, Giggle, & Shake: 200 Ways to Move & Learn by Rae Pica (Gryphon House, 2001)