Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Pivotal Role Movement Plays in Learning

More blood means more energy and oxygen, which makes our brain perform better.” – Justin Rhodes

Spending time in schools as a leadership and learning coach has been some of the most gratifying work I have done.  The best part is the conversations that I get to have with learners, especially at the elementary level.  These always leave me invigorated and remind me why I became a teacher many years ago. Then there is the practicality of being able to work with both administrators and teachers at the ground level to improve pedagogy and, in turn, student outcomes. From this lens, I get to truly see the seeds of change germinate into real shifts in practice.  It also provides me with an opportunity to reflect on what I see and my take on how the field of education can continue to evolve in ways that better support the needs of all learners.

Case in point.  Recently I was conducting learning walks in Edward K. Downing Elementary School with principal Marcos Lopez as part of some broader work in Ector County ISD. As we entered, the lesson was about to conclude.  The teacher had the students engaged in a closure activity to demonstrate an understanding of multiplication concepts in math.  After the exit tickets were all turned in the teacher had all the students participate in a brain break activity. Each kid was instructed to get up, walk around the room, and find a partner who was not in their pre-assigned seating groups. They were then instructed to compete in several games of rock-paper-scissors with various peers. After some heightened physical activity and fun, the lesson then transitioned to a do-now activity where students completed a science table to review prior learning. 

At first, I was enamored by the concept of brain breaks.  As a result, I did a little digging into the concept.  Numerous studies have found that without breaks students have higher instances of inappropriate classroom behavior. Not only did Elisabeth Trambley (2017) do a fantastic literature review of these, but she also conducted her own research study to determine the impact of brain breaks on behavior. She found that once the breaks were implemented the inappropriate behavior diminished, establishing a functional relationship between breaks and classroom behavior.

The concept of brain breaks got me thinking about a growing trend in education – as kids progress through the K-12 system, there is less and less movement.  I have seen this firsthand in schools across the globe.  Let’s look into this a little more closely.  Research reviewed by Elisabeth Trambley, Jacob Sattelmair & John Ratey (2009), and Kristy Ford (2016) all conclude how both recess and physical activity lead to improved learning outcomes. To go even a bit deeper, studies have found that movement improves overall learning as well as test scores, skills, and content knowledge in core subjects such as mathematics and reading fluency as well as increases student interest and motivation (Adams-Blair & Oliver, 2011; Braniff, 2011; Vazou et al., 2012; Erwin, Fedewa, & Ahn, 2013; Browning et al., 2014). 

The bottom line is not only is physical education an absolute must in the K-12 curriculum, but schools need to do more to ensure that movement is being integrated into all classes. Need more proof on how important movement is? All one has to do for this is to turn to science.  The brain needs regular stimulation to properly function and this can come in the form of exercise or movement. Based on what is now known about the brain, this has been shown to be an effective cognitive strategy to improve memory and retrieval, strengthen learning, and enhance motivation among all learners. The images below help to reinforce this point.


Click HERE to view the research study.



Science and research compel all educators to integrate more movement into the school day. Below is a short list of simple ideas to make this a reality.

  • Add more recess not just in elementary, but in middle school as well.
  • Intentionally incorporate activities into each lesson regardless of the age of your students. Build in the time but don’t let the activity dictate what you are going to do. You need to read your learners and be flexible to determine the most appropriate activity. 
  • Implement short brain breaks from 30 seconds to 2 minutes in length every 20 minutes, or so that incorporate physical activity. If technology is available utilize GoNoodle, which is very popular as students rotate between stations in a blended learning environment. If not, no sweat. A practical activity can simply be getting students to walk in place or stand up and perform stretching routines. 
  • Ensure every student is enrolled in physical education during the school day. 

Don’t look at kids moving in class as a break or poor use of instructional time. As research has shown, movement is an essential component of learning. If the goal is to help kids be better learners, then we have to be better at getting them up and moving in school. 


Adams-Blair H., Oliver G. (2011). Daily classroom movement: Physical activity integration into the classroom. International Journal of Health, Wellness, & Society, 1 (3), 147–154.

Braniff C. (2011). Perceptions of an active classroom: Exploration of movement and collaboration with fourth grade students. Networks: An On-line Journal for Teacher Research, 13 (1).

Browning C., Edson A.J., Kimani P., Aslan-Tutak F. (2014). Mathematical content knowledge for teaching elementary mathematics: A focus on geometry and measurement. Mathematics Enthusiast, 11 (2), 333–383.

Erwin H., Fedewa A., Ahn S. (2013). Student academic performance outcomes of a classroom physical activity intervention: A pilot study. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 5 (2), 109–124.


1 comment:

  1. Agreed with the thought shared on the post, breaks are very important in order to motivate and stimulate the brain. This activity time and breaks should be implemented in the education system in order to channelize the learning process for the students. Thanks for your insightful post, keep updating us on the topic regularly. All the best!

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