How does physical movement affect learning?
“Movement determines, in a lot of ways, how our brains work,” says Susan Hrach, author of Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning. In her book, Hrach shares findings from evolutionary science and research in cognitive psychology, kinesiology, and phenomenology, and calls for learning experiences to honor the brain-body connection.
In this interview, Hrach shares how movement, physical space, and sensory learning affects learning.
Dr. Susan Hrach (rahk) is director of the Faculty Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning and professor of English at Columbus State University in Georgia.
Learn to Move, Move to Learn
Evolutionary science researchers theorize that our brains have developed, primarily, to harness the different ways our bodies can move. Movement optimizes, in a lot of ways, how our brains were designed to think.
So how can we get students moving around in the classroom? Here’s a recommendation I like to think of as Think-Pair-Share 2.0.
- Move-and-Think: Give students a prompt for students to think about as they are on the move. You might send students out in small groups, to give them a chance to move around the halls of the building. Better yet, encourage them to go outside if possible because natural light and fresh air help students release stress that they bring with them to class and restore their bandwidth.
- Meet-and-Pair: Have them gather in different parts of the classroom space and meet with different partners as they take turns discussing the question.
- Stay-and-Share: Have students stay in whichever part of the room they’re gathered in to share out to the rest of the classroom.
Physical Space: Optimizing the Classroom
How human brains process information is really affected by the physical space we occupy. Ceiling height, colors, and natural light are all factors. One small way to optimize your physical learning space is something as simple as making sure the window blinds are always open to let in more natural light.
Another factor is being exposed to different areas and perceptions of the same physical space. In a classroom, for example, what if we, as instructors, challenged ourselves to get students to move around to different parts of the room two or three times per class? It will look different for every discipline, but you might have different walls representing different workstations that students can move around to. Or you could use mobile whiteboards or incorporate giant sticky notes into class so that your students are moving around and processing different pieces of the content in different parts of the room.
Sensations: Interrogate Sensory Perceptions
Neuroscience tells us that the brain is always trying to conserve energy, and one way it does that is by making predictions based on past experiences. So when we encounter a new idea or concept or object, it requires a lot of bodily energy, conscious attention, and exposure from multiple perspectives to ensure our brains accurately perceive that information.
The more opportunities we have to practice a skill or interact with a concept, the more our brains will actually begin to enjoy the experience. When you’re able to place new information inside a familiar context, your brain literally releases a chemical reward. It’s a pleasure response. Faculty should think about this in the context of their classes. Hands-on activities with an object, or observing a concept in different ways, such as through audio recordings, are ways to channel bodily energy and add perspectives. The sciences and studio arts are fortunate in many ways because they have an experiential model built into their classes. It will be more challenging for other disciplines, but worth the effort.
Inclusivity and Movement
Any conversation about movement must recognize inclusiveness as an important part of any physical learning activities. We all operate with different levels of mobility. I may be living with a permanent disability or a temporary injury that limits movement, while someone else might be in her third trimester of pregnancy. There are all sorts of reasons why your mobility is different on different days and in different times of your life. Above all, I think it’s important to approach movement in the classroom with a sense of respect and kindness for everybody’s place on a given day.
Barrett, Lisa Feldman. 2017. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Paul, Annie Murphy. 2021. The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Williams, Florence. 2017. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. New York: W.W. Norton.
Wolpert, Daniel M. 2011. “The Real Reason for Brains.” TEDGlobal. https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.