The Impact of Movement On Your Child’s Learning

“Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth, which depends upon the impressions received from outside.  Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.” – Dr. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood

If you walk into traditional-style classrooms, you will find rows of desks at which students sit and are presented with information.  In a kindergarten program, you might see children all sitting down together, also being presented with information or working on the same project.  When you walk into a Montessori classroom, you will see nothing of the sort.  You might see children moving about the room, some sitting at a table, others standing at tables.  And you might ask yourself why there is such a difference between this environment and the other?  The answer is simple.  Movement is essential to a child’s ability to learn and so it is both facilitated and encouraged in the Montessori environment.

Over a hundred years ago, Dr. Montessori documented this phenomenon, as she observed that movement was an essential part of a child’s intellectual growth.  She found that children learn best by “doing.”  And so, doing, is an integral component to all Montessori activities.  The physical participation of the child in an activity is what informs the child.  Today, research continually finds support for Dr. Montessori’s findings.  This scientific research affirms that walking, moving, stretching, and other activities actually enhance the learning process.  Sedentary learning creates boredom and disinterest because it fails to stimulate.

Your child’s movement affects his/her body in the following ways:

Relaxation.  Simple stretching can increase the flow of cerebral spinal fluid, thus getting more oxygen to the brain.  The result?  More relaxed eyes prevent eye strain, the body becomes relaxed, and the brain becomes more able to narrow it’s focus to targeted tasks.

Enhanced Spatial Learning.  A new position in the room creates a new perspective and the brain begins to create a more detailed map.  This can refresh the mind as well as enhance a child’s spatial learning, which is essential to mathematical learning, for example.

A Break from Learning.  While it seems counterintuitive, a brain in movement acquires information, but a brain at rest absorbs information.  Periods of rest are essential for the brain to process the information it has taken in.  So, if a child sits with an activity he has taken of the shelf and uses his hands, eyes, ears, and sense of touch to manipulate and acquire information from an activity, he may follow that with a wander around the room.  That wandering is just as important as the involved activity because it gives his brain a rest allowing him to process what he is learned before he moves to a new activity and acquires new information.  For this reason, recess is more than just play; it is an essential part of the learning process as well.

Motivation.  Certain chemicals stimulated by the body’s movement are actually natural motivators.  Noradrenaline and dopamine increase energy levels, enhance information storage and retrieval abilities, and make people feel good.  Children in motion want to do more and are better able to tap into their inner learning drive.

Increase in Self-Discipline.  The original purpose of chairs and desks were to help children in a disciplinary manner: keep them in one place and in better control of themselves.  Dr. Montessori found this to be the very opposite of what happened.  Sedentary learning creates boredom and children become unable to control their bodies.  Movement encourages pursuit of interest and helps the child learn to modify and control their actions.

The Environment Responds and Children Learn Better From These Responses.  Implicit learning is based on the brain’s ability to organize responses to and from the environment.  Utilizing emotions, the brain reacts to stimuli responses from the body’s actions in the environment.  Emotions like surprise, joy, sadness, and fear, all contribute to the categorizing of information being taken in from the responses.  The importance of this is that implicit learning is better remembered and more efficient.

Proprioceptive Awareness (awareness of the body in space).  Awareness of one’s body in space, proprioception, is essential to abstract academic learning, like reading, writing and mathematics.  The proprioceptive system is strengthened by physical movements.  Activities of practical life or outdoor play, like sweeping with a broom, pushing a wheelbarrow, carrying a bucket, carrying groceries, pouring, using tongs, emptying the trash, pulling weeds or digging, or hanging from monkey bars all contribute to strengthening this system.  These types of activities stimulate pressure receptors within their muscles, tendons, and joints, and allow children’s minds to map of the locations of these receptors within the body.  The result is a connection made between the child’s mind and body parts.   Children thus develop a sense of where their body is in space, and even if their eyes are closed, the children will now be able to feel or sense the location of their body parts, as well as the spaces around them.  Now, when these children look at the shapes of letters and numbers, their eyes can follow and track the lines and curves.  The memory of these movements imprints upon their mind.

Once we look at how the brain is affected by movement, it is easy to see how important it is for the learning process and why freedom of movement is an important part of the Montessori program.  It is also an important part of children’s daily lives and something to remember when they are home or out and about.

Movement helps the brain acquire and process information and maintain energy.  So, when your child is restless or cannot sit still, or perhaps wishes to explore, remember that this is all a part of the child’s innate to learn.  These movements are wired in them in order to promote that natural, instinctive learning process.  Encourage and support this movement by finding safe and acceptable ways for your child to move in whatever environment he or she enters.  Be sensitive to this movement and consider it a learning need rather than a behavioral problem.  If your child is acting out, look for ways to encourage movement in order to create a sense of relaxation the will lead to self-discipline.

“Since it is through movement that the will realizes itself, we should assist a child in his attempts to put his will into act.”  — Dr. Maria Montessori

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