What is the best way to learn? Because people are so different it seems that what’s ‘best’ may be somewhat subjective. Today, we’re asking the question: Does movement improve learning outcomes? And the answer is a resounding yes! Fortunately there are lots of other benefits for children, too.
Welcome, it’s great to have you here. I’m Liz and I’m the host of The Early Childhood Research Podcast. This is episode 6 and today I’m speaking to child psychologist and researcher, Myrto Mavilidi, about how movement can positively affect learning.
Myrto is Greek, so she completed her psychology degree in Greece, then had an exchange year in Paris, fortunately she speaks French. Myrto then did a Masters degree in the Netherlands where she focused on human learning and performance, in other words, researching the most effective ways to learn.
She also spent some time providing psychological support to a children’s hospital in Greece, working particularly with children with autism and with special needs. Now Myrto is working towards her PhD in Early Years at the Early Start Research Institute based at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Her focus is researching the effects of movement on children’s cognition.
Does movement improve learning outcomes?
Myrto Mavilidi, welcome to The Early Childhood Research Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Hello, Liz. Thanks so much for your invitation!
The importance of using gestures
Research is showing that subtle body movements such as gesturing with our hands helps us learn more effectively. Can you explain why or how this happens?
Gesturing is a very natural process that occurs spontaneously and it helps contribute to cognitive processes because it decreases working memory load and facilitates retention, problem solving and learning. This is based on research, and these movements are integrated with the learning tasks and they are only effective when they’re meaningful or congruent with the learning tasks. It has also been found that if you force someone to gesture a certain way then it can be detrimental for learning, so it’s important that they are natural and they occur spontaneously.
Gestures need to be natural and spontaneous
You want the movement to be related to the learning, but you want it to be spontaneous.
Yes, if it’s related to gesturing, because you use it when you talk, you use it when you’re thinking.
So the challenge, then, is to design learning tasks in such a way that learners gesture spontaneously in a task-relevant way.
Does it mean that gesturing with our arms, for example, while we’re learning something new means we take more information in, or does it mean that we’re better at remembering what we’ve learned so we can pull it back out of our brain more easily?
Gesturing makes the trace richer and deeper in the memory so then it’s easier to find and recall. If you think about children, when they start learning counting they use their hands, they use gestures spontaneously and naturally and this helps them remember more, because the information that they receive is connected better. One of the reasons using the fingers is so powerful is that the load that is imposed by this learning task is now divided between the memory and the hand, so using the hand creates an extra source of memory.
Research has shown that gesturing is beneficial when the learner gestures, but also when you can see another one gesturing, so if teachers also gesture that is beneficial, too.
Moving the whole body improves learning even more
Gesturing improves learning, but your research also showed that if you get the whole body involved rather than just the hands and arms, the learning increases significantly more. Why do you think this happens?
There are two areas of research. The research on gesturing has been done mostly in the area of educational psychology, but now public health sciences are also trying to connect physical exercise with cognition. This area of research shows that aerobic exercise and physical activity in general has very positive effects on cognitive functioning, executive function and it helps a lot with memory, attention, improvements in on-task behavior in children and also with academic achievement.
Exercise helps a lot. It elicits brain changes that are related to learning and memory, such as improved blood flow, increased oxygenation and general neuro-connectivity.
It sounds like we’re saying that if our bodies are stagnant, our brain is less efficient. But if we get up and move, our brains become more active.
I can say a very, very old phrase, ‘it’s important to have a healthy mind in a healthy body.’ So balance is the best, you should not just focus on one part and disregard the other one.
How much exercise do kids need?
How long has research been telling us that kids need to be active to improve their learning?
There are recommendations and physical activity guidelines for children because of the health benefits, like prevention of obesity, cardio-respiratory problems, heart diseases. It helps with musculoskeletal health so it’s very important that children move. In the last few years American, Canadian and Australian guidelines say that preschoolers, from 2-5 years old, need to have at least an hour a day of structured physical activity and at least 60 mins a day of unstructured physical activity, and they should also not be sedentary for more than 60 mins at a time unless they are sleeping. Only 53% of children meet these guidelines.
When you say ‘structured exercise’ what do you mean by that?
Structure can be learning fundamental gross motor skills and unstructured can be running outside and any kind of movement they do throughout the day.
So research has found that that kind of structured exercise is really important.
Well, these are only guidelines. What’s important to keep in mind is that they need to move at least 2 hours per day.
Higher learning outcomes for little ones: pressuring teachers
Countries like Finland and Denmark have a long tradition of keeping their young children active and their preschoolers spend many hours outside even when it’s cold. Conversely, over the last 10-20 years, countries like the US, the UK and Australia have decreased activity time for children because a) they are worried about safety issues, and b) they’re sitting kids down to learn reading, writing and math at a younger age. You have studied child psychology in Greece, the Netherlands and Australia, have you seen differences in what is expected of children in different countries?
There is a tendency, and I think that’s everywhere, towards academic achievement and there is a lot of pressure on that, the earlier they learn the better. But they are also trying to prevent childhood obesity. So, one, there is a tendency towards academic achievement and to sit and learn, but on the other hand they are trying to activate more children.
So we’re sitting the kids down more, but we are becoming more aware that we’re actually sitting them down too much.
Yes, I think so. It depends, because normally it’s the teachers who sit the kids down and the physical educators want the kids to move more.
I would say that the reason the educators are sitting the little ones down is because they’re getting pressured from above to make the kids learn more when they’re younger so they feel like they don’t have a choice.
Yes, that’s true. But if you base it on the research physical activity is very important also for executive functioning, so actually physical activity helps children. It’s definitely not detrimental.
I’ve heard a lot of teachers, particularly in the US, talking about how they have to skip recess to get the kids ready for their testing etc, but they’re really not doing the kids a favour by having them skip recess, or cutting out PE because it’s going to make them sluggish.
Research shows that children who are fitter perform better in tasks that require executive control and associative memory because they showed increased response speed, accuracy, and working memory capacity and a better cognitive performance.
A lot of teachers use brain breaks in their classroom. Have you heard of brain breaks?
It might be 30 mins into a class and the kids are getting fidgety so they get the kids up for 2 or 3 mins and do some kind of activity and then sit them back down. There are sites like GoNoodle, and that’s a free site, and they have lots of activities on it. Teachers get their kids up to do an activity and then sit them back down to go on with their work.
Incorporating movement into structured learning
It’s great that teachers are getting kids up and moving, but when you’re talking about moving and you’re talking about gesturing, you’re suggesting not to just get up and move between a lesson, but incorporate more activity into the lesson itself.
This is a new area of research and it’s called Classroom Based Physical Activity Programs. The first goal of these programs is to increase physical activity during the school day and they did it 2 ways, either through recess or break, or by integrating physical activity with academic content.
Both have benefits. My type of research is trying to integrate movements into learning, especially at this age. Preschool children, they want to play, and you need to find an engaging way for them to learn so it should be related to movement because it’s also natural for them to move.
There have been a lot of studies in this new type of instruction in elementary school children and it worked but you also have to think about what you want to learn. Because, depending on the difficulty or subject, you can’t integrate movement into everything. So then you can use the activity breaks.
So a teacher needs to look at what they’re teaching through the day and think about what activities they can incorporate…
Yes, they have done activities with math, geography, language, English and literacy and they have worked really well and children are really happy and they like it and there was even a high percentage of teacher satisfaction. In the beginning it’s always hard because they have to change and adjust how they’re teaching in the classroom. But in the end, if you’re willing to make change, trying to think about teaching in a different way that is more beneficial for children, it’s helpful.
Has that just been done on a research basis or have they actually come up with programs.
There are many programs, actually. They are very good and very interesting. There are programs like K2 Energizers or Take 10, and some of them have been integrated into schools
And where are they?
They started in the US and now they’re testing their feasibility in the UK and China. With these programs they also found improvements in on-task behaviours, children are staying more focused, there’s more physical activity, and there are also improvements in academic achievement, like maths and literacy scores.
Moving comes naturally to children
And in preschools, what you’re saying is that instead of teachers standing on the sideline while the children play in the sandpit or play with each other, teachers should be interacting with the kids and teaching them gross motor skills.
Yes, and during the group times, instead of doing activities that encourage a sedentary way they can teach in a more interactive way. A director told me this last week:
‘I was thinking of ways to integrate movement into learning and then I was talking to the kids about how the birds have to take care of the tiny birds when they hatch. The kids were so interested and they wanted to run out and go and see the nest, and then come back and then we were talking about everything. ‘
It’s what kids tend to do… move. It’s natural for them.
So we just need to encourage that as part of their learning day.
Yes, and teachers can help by giving more stimuli and movement, and in learning as well.
It’s just like any time that we’re teaching. If we’ve got a certain thing in our head when we’re planning, if we keep that in mind then we can adapt our lesson to that. So if we’re thinking, ‘oh, I need to get the kids more active, I need to get them integrating gestures and movements and their whole body in learning this subject,’ we would probably have more creative ideas about how to do that if we just keep it in our head.
And what’s more important for the kids… they like it so much! It’s so much fun for them. And they want to do it.
A healthy mind in a healthy body
So we have to actually re-educate people to understand the importance of movement in learning.
I think the focus should be on both as I said in the beginning, ‘it’s a healthy mind in a healthy body. ‘
One last thing I can say is about episodic memory. You learn and remember things when they are temporally dated, specially located, or personally experienced events or episodes. So it’s the general contextualizing of information.
So, if you’re learning something in a meaningful context.
Yes, and then movement enhances this meaningful context and it’s easier to remember and it’s a better way to learn.
You’ve said some really good things today, Myrto, and I really want to thank you for joining us.
Thank you very much, Liz.
And I wish you good luck with your doctorate.
You can find Myrto
On Linkedin. Or you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to look a bit further?
Would you like to read one of Myrto’s recent research papers? This one is focused on the benefits of gesturing and moving while learning foreign language words.
This link will take you to a journal article showing links between physical activity in the classroom and on-task behaviours.
This link leads to a paper showing the benefits of the Take 10! program over 10 years.
Want access to free, well designed activity breaks?
Try GoNoodle. (I’m not affiliated). Lots of teachers love this site.
The Schools Where They Never Say ‘Sit Still’: This is a great article about schools in South Carolina who are getting their kids exercising at the same time as learning content. It’s a really great read!
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