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How Physical Activity Can Help Kids Learn

Teacher_StudentGames_400Art Glenberg of the Laboratory for Embodied Cognition at Arizona State University has found that kids who solved math story problems by acting them out were better off than kids who simply read them. Maria Montessori had it right: the body is an important part of the learning process, if you know how to use it. Learn more from How the Body Knows Its Mind.

Consider this math problem Glenberg gave to third graders:

There are 2 hippos and 2 alligators at the zoo.

They live by each other, so Pete the zookeeper feeds them at the same time.

It is time for Pete to feed the hippos and the alligators.

Pete gives each hippo 7 fish. (Green light)

Then he gives each alligator 4 fish. (Green light)

The hippos and alligators are happy now that they can eat.

How many fish do both the hippos and the alligators have altogether before they eat any?

Students who acted out the problem, who actually counted out the appropriate number of little toy fish and distributed them to the animals, were two times more likely to solve the problem correctly than the kids who simply reread the story.

But here’s where the data get really interesting: a third group of students, who counted out Lego pieces whenever there was a green light, didn’t do any better at solving the math problem than the kids who simply reread the story. One of the surprising lessons of this research is that it’s not just any movement that produces understanding. The third graders in the Lego group were still moving objects, but these objects were unrelated to the plot of the story problem: the Lego pieces were not shaped like fish, nor were there figures of hippos and alligators to distribute the fish to. When there isn’t a direct connection between words and objects, the power of action is lost.

Interestingly, the use of blocks and other objects, or manipulatives, is becoming more and more popular in classrooms across the nation (especially in more elite schools): students are taught to count with blocks or sticks as a way to solve math problems. Originally created in the early 1900s for educational use, block play is being touted by teachers and parents alike as the new cureall for our educational woes, and national school suppliers have added a ton of new block-related products to their catalogues in the past several years. Private schools now use their blocks as a recruiting tool. Manipulatives are even advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics as a way to enhance students’ grasp of basic math concepts like subtraction and addition. Yet while the block movement represents a renewed faith in incorporating active play into learning, how exactly this block play is carried out determines what kids learn. It’s not simply the handling of blocks—or Legos, as we saw in Glenberg’s study—that’s important. Rather, as Glenberg’s work clearly shows, manipulatives have a positive learning benefit when they can be directly connected to the content of the problem students are trying to solve.

Why does the direct linking of children’s actions to the story content matter? Consider the word each, which Glenberg thinks children have a particularly hard time with. Understanding this word is actually quite complicated: the word must be connected to the correct set of objects, and the objects within the set need to be seen as distinct entities. It is not enough when reading each to note that there is a group of alligators. The reader must also realize that there are two alligators and that they are fed individually. Physically manipulating the relation between the fish and the characters in the story makes this individuation pretty clear, because the child has to count out fish for each of the alligators. It’s less obvious when kids don’t do this sort of story-relevant counting. In fact Glenberg found that the most typical error among kids who counted with Legos was to say that the hippos and alligators had eleven instead of twenty-two fish before they ate any of them. It’s as if the kids failed to realize that each meant that the eleven fish had to be doubled to get the total for the two alligators and two hippos. By acting out the story with relevant manipulatives, children come to understand symbols (such as the word each).

Random hands-on activities are no panacea for educational woes, but carefully structured action experiences can help children learn. Kids don’t have to walk around with a toolbox of toys for math and reading in order to get an action benefit. Glenberg and his research team have also shown that, once children have some action experience, they can imagine performing the actions in the stories and still get a benefit. When the connections from words to actions are in place, it is easy to capitalize on them.

Of course, cognitive scientists weren’t the first to tout the educational benefits of movement. Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori educational movement, wrote a hundred years ago, “One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions. . . . Mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it. . . . Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes about through his movements. . . . Mind and movement are parts of the same entity.”

In Montessori schools, kids learn the alphabet by tracing letters and, just as in Glenberg’s reading lessons, learn grammar and vocabulary by acting out sentences their teachers read to them. For decades the emphasis that the Montessori method placed on a dynamic learning environment was largely ignored by mainstream educators, but recent advances in neuroscience and psychology show how critical movement is for understanding. This new research in embodied learning helps provide a road map for how to structure educational activities to best help kids learn. The mind is not an abstract information processor largely divorced from the body and the environment. It is highly influenced by the body and movement.

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