Strategies to Incorporate Movement in the Classroom

Emerging research suggests that more physical activity can improve academic achievement. Incorporating movement and exercise throughout the school day makes students less fidgety and more focused. Movement is essential in your classroom management tool kit because it improves on-task behavior and focus.

Firsthand Account of Benefits of Physical Activity

It may seem daunting to add one more thing to your to-do list, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. I can personally attest to the positive power of movement in the classroom. 

Many education courses in college prepare you for your first classroom, but let’s be honest, none prepare you for the challenges of a very “busy” and often unfocused group of kindergarteners or even first graders. You know I’m right!

My initial teaching experience was in a first-grade classroom. Despite my best efforts and trying every possible tool in my classroom management arsenal, most days ended with me feeling like there wasn’t much solid learning going on. It felt like I had herded cats all day long. The frustration was mounting, and that just created a vicious cycle. Then it hit me, why not find a way to channel that energy in positive ways. 

My initial teaching experience was in a first-grade classroom. Despite my best efforts and trying every possible tool in my classroom management arsenal, most days ended with me feeling like there wasn’t much solid learning going on. It felt like I had herded cats all day. The frustration was mounting, and that just created a vicious cycle. Then it hit me, why not find a way to channel that energy in positive ways.

The very next morning, I began implementing changes to our routine. After campus announcements, we lined up and headed to the hard top not far from our classroom. I explained that we were going to walk a couple of laps together.

I led them around the hard top the first couple of days. We put our arms out, “flew around”, hopped, and stomped. As they became familiar with the routine, I turned them loose to run or walk as many laps as they could in 5 minutes. On rainy days, we walked for 5 minutes under a covered walkway. Then I led them back into the building for a restroom and drink break. 

This accomplished two things for my students, they got the wiggles out and cut down the number of interruptions for bathroom trips. Our mornings went so much better from the very first day.

Having a “job” is a big deal to first graders, so I included movement in every job I assigned. Some of these included:

  • Backpack helpers – two students helped put backpacks in our closet. This solved two things. 1. Having everyone crowded around the closet trying to be first to get their backpack in and 2. Preventing a total mess with backpacks flung everywhere and falling out on the floor. Helpers also distributed backpacks at the end of the day. 
  • Pencil sharpeners – a couple kiddos were responsible for making sure all of the pencils were sharpened for the day.
  • Messengers – a pair of students delivered paperwork and other items to the front office or anywhere else needed in the building.
  • Clean-up crew – when we did art projects, we would have scrap paper and other items all over the floors, so a few students acted as the clean-up crew. They brought out trash cans and used handheld brooms and dustpans to clean up little messes on the floor.

These were just a few of our classroom jobs. Everyone in the class had one, and they rotated every week. All jobs involved movement and the students loved them. My students felt a sense of pride and responsibility. These go a long way toward building self esteem and focus. I’m sure many of you already do something like this, if you don’t, you should really consider this as part of your back-to- school to-do list. 

I also added movement as part of lessons. A couple of our favorite activities included:

  • Swat – I wrote spelling words randomly on the whiteboard. Two students had a flyswatter. I called out a spelling word, and the first student to find it “swatted” it. The person who didn’t get the word picked their replacement.
  • Puppet shows – students paired up, picked a book, made character puppets, and acted out the story for another pair of students.
  • Fun Friday – we did STEM activities, explored the nature center on campus, and did art projects on most Fridays. Activities centered around a concept or theme we’d been studying that week.

Ways to Incorporate Movement in the Elementary Classroom 

The connection between learning and exercise seems especially strong for elementary school students. Did you know that just five minutes of movement can support healthy brain function? Here are some ways to add movement to your elementary classroom: 

  • Morning movement – start the day by moving. Introduce simple yoga movements. Lead students in stretching activities or jog in place. 
  • Dance it out  – nothing like a little mid-morning dance break to get the wiggles out. There are many opportunities to include music/movement and learning using songs from people like Dr. Jean Feldman. 
  • Break it up – studies show that after about 15 minutes of sitting, the brain loses oxygen. Let students stand up to work. During lessons that require long periods of sitting, take a break and let them wiggle their fingers, roll their shoulders, clap, or any other movement where they can remain seated.
  • Flexible seating – there are so many options for flexible seating, from balance balls to a variety of floor options that allow for movement. If your students have to remain seated at a desk, try adding large rubber bands between legs on chairs so they can quietly move their feet. Allow them to stand while working. 
  • Manipulatives – stations are a great place to incorporate manipulatives. Magnetic letters are great for making words. Magnetic numbers make math problems come to life. Dice, balls, flashcards, playing cards, and games are also great items to add that increase movement. 
  • STEAM – students love Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math activities. Give them plenty of opportunities to explore these areas that are hands-on and get their bodies and brains moving.

Ways to Incorporate Movement in the Secondary Classroom

It might seem like adding movement in the secondary classroom may be a challenge, but it’s pretty simple. Here are some ways to add movement to your secondary classroom:

  • Technology is your friend – students would rather be on their phones or playing the latest video game than sitting listening to a boring lesson any time, so use it to your advantage. Give students the opportunity during class to work in groups to record a video, make a commercial or other digital form that summarizes a portion of a chapter covered or key concepts learned during the week. Post these to the class site for them to refer to in the future. 
  • Escape Room – Escape Rooms are popular activities for teens and families, making it a great way to engage students and get them moving. Work with students from one class period to write questions and clues to design an Escape Room for another class period.
  • Gallery Walks/Chalk Talks – sometimes students have multiple texts to read for a lesson. Post them around the room and have students rotate in small groups to read and analyze or answer questions about the material. These can also be digital walks. Students can circulate among laptops in the classroom to watch student-created videos and take notes. 
  • North Pole – South Pole/Continuum.  – North Pole – South Pole is just another name for debate. One side of the room represents one idea and the other side represents the opposing idea. This is a good formative assessment of learning and background knowledge without the traditional quiz. You can assess understanding or confidence in knowledge. You can do a combination of North/South and also the Continuum. You write three questions, “ I feel confident in how well I know ___________”, “I’m not confident at all in how well I know _______” , and finally, “I’m not sure about __________”. Students who are confident will align on one side of the room, students who are not at all confident will be on the other side of the room, and students who aren’t sure will be in the middle or closer to one side or the other. You can follow this up with a quiz to see what you need to reteach or refresh before an exam.
  • Stations – I know you think I’ve lost it here since stations are for elementary students, but hear me out. You can use stations for differentiation in secondary school. You can use technology by embedding the activities digitally using QR codes. Students can rotate between stations that can include short writing prompts, different math problems, poems to analyze, or different activities for new vocabulary or concepts.

As educators, we are constantly looking for ways to enhance the learning experiences of our students. The connection between movement and learning is becoming more and more clear. Be creative. The possibilities to include movement and physical activity in your classroom are endless. Get to know your students and select activities that will bring out the best in them and support positive outcomes. In the words of a famous shoe maker, “Just Do It!”

Teia Hoover Baker is an educator, published author, and entrepreneur. She is an innovative, devoted educator whose career has been dedicated to coordinating programs that support struggling learners. Her passion is meeting students where they are and guiding them to excel. Her main focus is always what is best for children. Teia holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a Master’s of Education. In her spare time, she enjoys being Lovie to her growing grandchildren.

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