When students use their bodies in the learning process, it can have a big effect, even if it seems silly or unconnected to the learning goal at hand. Researchers have found that when students use their bodies while doing mathematical storytelling (like with word problems, for example), it changes the way they think about math. “We understand language in a richer, fuller way if we can connect it to the actions we perform,” said Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Consider this word problem:

Two hippos and two alligators are at the zoo. Pete the zookeeper feeds them at the same time. Pete gives each hippo seven fish. He gives four to the alligators.

In an experiment on third graders, students were divided into two groups. One group read through the problem twice. The other group acted out the story as they read it, physically pretending to feed fish to the hippos and alligators as they read the problem. Both groups of students were asked how many fish the zookeeper fed to the animals.

The answer:

“Kids who acted out the story did better on this problem,” Beilock said. The kids who read the problem often got “eleven” as a solution. They had missed the word “each” in the problem. But because the acting kids had physically mimed giving each hippo seven fish before moving on, the difference was ingrained.

“What was important was matching the words with specific action; that led to enhanced learning,” Beilock said. “And after they’d acted it out they could actually do it in their head and get some of the same benefits.”


Scholarly study goes back a long time in history, but in terms of human evolution, many of the academic skills now required for successful functioning in the world are fairly new to the human brain. As neuroscientists investigate how humans learn, they often find that newer skills and aptitudes are mapped onto areas of the brain that also control basic body functions. Increasingly, this work is helping to illuminate neurological connections between the human body, its environment and the process of learning.

“In order to really engage our students and help them perform at their best we have to move beyond what’s happening in the head,” said Beilock at a Learning and the Brain conference. “We have to go beyond that.”

This area of study, called “embodied learning,” is not new to many educators. Maria Montessori highlighted the connection between minds and bodies in her 1936 book The Secret of Childhood: “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.”

Increasingly scientists are proving Montessori right. Researchers are studying the body movements of children as young as four-to-six months old and have found earlier and more frequent movement correlates with academic learning down the road. Kids who could sit up, sustain “tummy time” longer and walk were all correlated with future academic success, even when researchers controlled for socioeconomics, family education and type of future education, among other mitigating factors.

“A very strong predictor of academic achievement was how early kids were moving, exploring their world,” Beilock said. “When kids can explore their surroundings, all of a sudden, things change.” Once kids are on the move the adults in their lives use directives and other more complicated language forms. As kids are coached by their parents, they begin to understand the directions and change behaviors. And once a child can do something on her own, she’s more likely to internalize what’s happening with others. “There is evidence that our ability to use our hands affects the structure and functioning of the brain,” Beilock said.

As young children move and explore their worlds, they are learning through touch. Early bimanual training correlates with the robustness of the corpus callosum, a part of the brain that facilitates quick communication between the left and right brain hemispheres, Beilock said. This connection between using ones hands and swift communication in the brain may be part of the reason learning to play music is often correlated with math ability.

“Math is a very recent cultural invention,” Beilock said. The part of the brain responsible for numerical representation also controls finger motion. Many children first learn to count on their fingers, a physical manifestation of the connection. The studies of very young learners have solidified Beilock’s conviction that academic learning is inherently connected to the body.


A colleague of Beilock’s at the University of Chicago, Susan Goldin-Meadow has done extensive research into how student gestures can indicate a more nuanced understanding of math than students are often able to articulate verbally. Goldin-Meadow did a lot of work around problems of equivalence, which children often struggle to understand. She found that often students gesture in ways that indicate they understand how to solve the problem even if they are simultaneously describing an incorrect solution.

“It’s particularly helpful for teachers because it may give you insight into things students may not be able to express,” said Goldin-Meadow at the same conference. Not only could gestures be a good clue for teachers, but when students produce what Goldin-Meadow calls “mismatches,” meaning they are saying one thing and gesturing a different understanding, it indicates they are primed to learn. And, when teachers produce “mismatches” in their own speech and gestures, it helps students already in that primed state to learn by offering several strategies.

“Encouraging kids to use their hands brings out unsaid, and often correct ideas, which then makes them more open to instruction and more likely to learn,” Goldin-Meadow said. She also found that showing two ways of doing a problem with speech had very little effect on learning, but showing two methods when one was in gesture helped learners.

And the connection between bodies and learning doesn’t stop with the younger grades. Beilock studies how well students comprehend abstract concepts in high school physics. Many classes focus on listening to lecture, reading a textbook and doing physics problems. Beilock hypothesized that if students could feel an abstract concept like angular momentum on their bodies, they would both understand and remember it better.

She and her colleagues used a rod with two bicycle wheels attached to test their ideas. Students spun the wheels and then tilted the rod in different directions. As they changed the angle, the force they felt changed dramatically. In her experiment, one set of students got to hold and experience the wheel. Another group just watched the first group and observed the effects they were feeling. They were all quizzed on the material a week later.

“Those students who had more motor activation did better on the test,” Beilock said. “And those students were the ones who got the experience.” But what if one set of students was just better at physics? Researchers at DePaul University have replicated this experiment, strengthening the scientific link between hands-on experimentation and powerful learning.


Just as body movement and involvement can have a huge impact on learning, so too can the spaces where we learn. While neuroscientists are starting to be able to prove this link with their experiments, this concept is nothing new. Philosophers, writers and practitioners of Eastern religions have long made the same connection between the power of nature to relax the mind and readiness to take on the world.

“When we are in nature, our directed attention has time to rest and replenish,” Beilock said. That’s important because focus is like a muscle that gets tired. One researcher asked students to take a walk through the downtown of a college town. They weren’t asked to do anything in particular, but they naturally encountered a lot of stimuli. The other group took a walk in a natural setting. The nature walkers were better able to focus when they returned.

Visual distractions apply to the classroom as well. Carnegie Mellon researchers recently found that when students learn in highly decorated classrooms, their gazes tend to wander, they get off task and their test scores suffer. Limiting visual stimulus is particularly important for very young learners who are still learning how to focus, and yet kindergarten classrooms are often the most brightly and densely decorated in an effort to make institutional buildings feel more cheerful.


One way to help students reduce test anxiety is to let them work it out through their bodies beforehand. Beilock did an experiment with freshmen high school students before their first final. She asked them to write down concerns about the test and connect to other times when they felt similar. They were told to be as open as they wanted and that their writing would be confidential. A control group of kids were told to think about what wouldn’t be on the test.

This activity had little effect on kids who didn’t experience much test anxiety. But students experiencing high levels of anxiety saw a six percentage point gain on their test scores. And, when Beilock analyzed those students’ writing, she found the strategy was particularly effective for students whose writing revealed an eventual acceptance that the test was a minor hurdle, not the big scary all-consuming event they’d been worried about.

“We can start leveraging the power of our bodies to help us learn, think and perform at our best,” Beilock said. Too often students are cooped up inside for six or more hours, sometimes without an adequate recess ,and more likely than not, with little attention paid to how their bodies could be powerful learning tools in the classroom.

Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the publication date of “The Secret of Childhood” as 1966. We regret this error.

Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn 28 March,2015Katrina Schwartz

  • Michelle

    Not every kid needs to move to learn. I know a student who would do this in his head instantly and get it right.

    • Ray Fischer

      And some people win the lottery

      • Guest 3

        Love Ray’s reply.

        • carlusha

          And many people in many places around the world just learn to do it in the head instantly – and get it right – without moving around, or without any other educational fad popular here.

    • spiders-are-arachnids

      Maybe not. Sounds to me you haven’t visited a Montessori classroom, or looked at Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.

    • spider are arachnids

      As a teacher myself, children need varying degrees of movement, and this may change as they develop. Some more, others not as much.

  • Guest

    gfgjgfI looked at the paycheck which was of $7584 , I be certain …that…my neighbours mother was like realy bringing home money parttime on their laptop. .

    there dads buddy started doing this 4 only 6 months and by now paid the debts on their house and got a new Infiniti . look at more info —–> SEE FULL DETAIL <—-<—

  • Renate Jakupca

    Building the National Coast-to-Coast ‘Great American Peace Trail’

    The “Worlds Children Peace Monument” (WCPM) and the “Great American Peace Trail” (GAPT) Projects are international, public participatory art projects using the “Theory of Iceality on Environmental Arts” and designed to engage children with cross-cultural hands on awareness in order to attain the common goal of sharing peace and diversity with their neighbors.

    Full Link

  • elsie

    there’s a typo- Montessori’s Secret of Childhood was published in 1936, not 1966.

  • Guest2

    How would this translate to a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder? Would it be helpful for that child over a more traditional classroom?

    • Meghan

      I’m a clinical psychologist who works with kids on the spectrum, and I believe that this type of learning is beneficial for all kids. Spectrum kids can be quite good at building things and putting things together (i.e. good visual-spatial skills), and so they will be more successful with some of the projects in Montessori schools. emergehealthwellness.com

      • Guest2

        Thanks! I have a friend whose child was recently evaluated as highly likely to have ASD, and I am trying to be supportive. I will check out the link you posted.

  • RAThayer

    I’m in a classroom daily and I can assure you that the snide comment at the end, “with little attention paid to how their bodies could be powerful learning tools” is a sign that the writer of this article has no real life experience in a classroom. First, teachers do everything they can to provide moving experience, because we know it helps kids in many ways, but most of us, like me, are in a classroom designed for 12 children. The problem is that I have them 25 or 26 at at a time and 165 kids are using the storage space/wall space/physical resources intended for 12. That’s right. Designed for 12, but 165 students using the room! There is no PRACTICAL way to make movement possible and I live in a place where it’s been below 0 for months, so using the outdoors isn’t possible. I find it very frustrating to constantly see education writing that is so disconnected from the real world. It would be much more helpful to promote ways that communities could fund these concepts, rather than acting like teachers are failing because they aren’t doing enough of it. Parents, if you want your kids to move, raise your taxes and provide the space/resources that are needed.

    • spiders-are-arachnids

      Movement is a big part of a Montessori classroom. The author is pointing out how that’s essential for development. I don’t think she was criticizing teachers in non-Montessori settings.

    • SOLTrainlearning

      I completely understand your frustration. It’s difficult to have such a passion for alternate methods of education and to lack the resources necessary. I agree with this article that movement, music, and other tools should be used in the classroom, but there has to be an acknowledgement of limitations as well. Maybe movement opportunities that have the children do more things in place? I’m not sure what age group you teach, but Jack Hartmann has a great song called “Hip Hop Jive and Count By 5s” that shows kids how to move and count within a limited space. Our business focuses solely on these multiple modality type of resources. Could you share a bit about something you might find useful in your classroom? I’m sure there are others who would find it useful as well.

  • Ana

    Great Article Katrina. Dr. Maria Mibtessori’s book “The Secret of Childhood” was published in 1936. Dr Montessori passed away in 1952. Her nominal work dated for more than 100years

    • Ki Sung

      Thanks for the catch, Ana. We’ve updated the post!

  • Pcancva

    Great article, horrible math example!! In the math problem, the second part (“He gives four to the alligators”) is unclear as it follows the “each” element. Is “each” implied for the alligators or is it explicit by omission? The good news is that having students act out the problem will quickly reveal this lack of clarity in problem design and provide a good opportunity for teacher and students to engage in a problem solving/teachable moment.

    • Bruce Chook Fowler

      Yes, clearly the problem with that problem was with the question writer….I thought the same. I am an Asperger adult but that’s how I interpretted it.

  • thelastrealrepublican

    WHERE’S THE RIGOR…. The metrics and all the other ridiculous buzzwords used in “education schools”.
    You mean kids aren’t mini middle aged adults!?
    Does make A a good doctoral thesis though which is what current educational theories are based on. Some 20 something, never had kids, never actually worked in the field, academic trying to get an A and a title.

  • MerricMaker .

    These insights about how learning can be fostered is hardly unique to Montessori. The problem with public schools is that they aren’t really about learning anymore, but about meeting administrative criteria and moving children out. That’s not to say teachers in them aren’t well aware of how best to teach, they’re just beholden to odious state or federal policies.

  • Remember history

    I appreciate the article, and I have followed info and programs from KQED for decades …. but the web address beginning with “ww2….” is distrubing. Is there no other address protocol that could be used other than this, which, even today, reminds many people of all that emobied World War 2?

  • ipaco

    very good
    کرکره برقی

  • Guest

    ufu I looked at the paycheck which was of $7584 , I be certain …that…my neighbours mother was like realy bringing home money parttime on their laptop. .

    there dads buddy started doing this 4 only 6 months and by now paid the debts on their house and got a new Infiniti . look at more info —–> SEE FULL DETAIL <—-<—

  • Seymour Papert called it syntonicity.

  • Ronald Glymph

    This is a great article! each and every k-8 teachers should read, understand and implement these learning strategies into their daily practice.

  • Curriculum Supv.

    Glad to see research that supports movement and learning. By the way, hippos don’t eat fish.

  • Kanai Gandhi

    The importance of movement and it’s connection with brain activities also comes forward when one focuses on why recesses are important. A recess is a break given to children in the middle of classes that consists of no constrict plans. In Recess, children usually make use of the playground by playing sports or tag etc. It can be said that this is beneficial because it gives children a break from learning in a traditional environment by placing them in an open environment where they are the masters of their own lesson plans. It might tire out the students or make them over-excited for the rest of the day, but it helps break a constant cycle of similar events which can tire them mentally. Learning though playing physical games in class can also help break that regime. I think that schools should consider lengthening their recesses as it holds more learning tools for students than we may think.

  • Cristina Thompson

    I found this blog post to be very compelling, and also appreciated that it was supported by a number of examples, anecdotes,
    and most importantly, research. Beilock makes the claim that “In order to
    really engage our students….we have to move beyond what’s happening in the
    head.” I believe this is partially true, in that student’s actions and active
    learning as described in this post heavily influences what is happening in the
    head- which will influence deeper learning, or “embodied learning.” This is a practice
    often used in Montessori schooling techniques, and practiced by involving
    movement and physical activity with the body or hands.

    This may be why the arts are so necessary in school. They involve a tremendous amount of
    creativity, which has been shown to be beneficial in a vast number of studies (Sroufe
    et al, 2004, etc). More importantly as it relates to this blog post, arts
    involve movements of both the hands and the body. The performing arts are
    especially active, and well studied in how much they benefit a student’s
    learning. Acting out scenes enhances children’s abilities to comprehend texts,
    identify characters, and understand motivations (Sroufe et al, 2004). Dance
    improves creative thinking, reading skills, and even writing proficiency
    (Deasy, 2002). Even music, which involves smaller movements, has been well
    studied in its benefits to learning. Causal links were found in learning to
    play music and spatial-temporal reasoning, which transfers directly to math and
    language learning (Hetland & Winner, 2001). As one can see, both
    correlational and experimental research has been employed to examine the
    relationship between the arts and positive outcomes. This blog post is useful
    for teachers and curriculum-makers alike because it encompasses important
    research and facts that may bolster learning in children through the use of
    movement in class.

    Deasy, R. (2002). Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and
    Student Academic and Social
    Development. International Journal of
    Education and the Arts, 3:3. 1-3.

    Hetland, L. & Winner, E. (2001). The Arts and Academic
    Achievement: What the Evidence
    Shows. Arts Education Policy Review,
    102:5. 3-6.

    Sroufe, G. et al. (2004). The Arts and Education: New
    Opportunities for Research. Arts Education Partnership.

  • While I definitely agree that exercise is one of the best things anyone can do for their mind (see Exercise Is Good For Young Minds Too), the premise of the hippo & alligator word problem is all wrong and calls the author’s reasoning into question. There’s no indication that physical motion played any role in the student’s success solving the problem any more than drawing the problem out or using figures may have.

    • SOLTrainlearning

      While the author is presenting some controversial, maybe ideological ideas, I agree that targeting multiple modalities within the learning process is important. Maybe the students who had more success using their bodies were kinesthetic learners. Another group of students might have success drawing the problem. Still another group might need to repeat the problem aloud. The one thing I take away from this is the importance of “mov[ing] beyond what’s happening in the head,” and allowing students to explore practical application through whatever is their most successful learning method. The more opportunities for practical application, the more impact the learning experience will have.

  • Regina Peterson

    I have always believed in active learning. If a child is not personally involved in the learning, then it is hard for them to ever have it ingrained in them. It would be interesting to find out if schools that implement this, or even just have Physical education do better than those schools without it. http://www.michellesacademy.com

  • Casey Jones

    Kristina, you make some great points about the benefits of the Montessori school approach. I like that you mentioned learning by move, touch, and experience. I know that is how I learn best. It would be nice to find a school that teaches by those principles.


  • Kirk Randall

    Kids can’t just sit and learn, they need to experience. That’s how adults learn a lot of the time. This is why we don’t know what were doing even thought we graduated from college. Experience is life’s best teacher. http://northendmontessori.com

  • Kirk Randall

    Being a parent is really hard. I just want to be able to teach my kids how to do things, but I feel like I’m failing miserably. The number one thing that I want to teach them is how to write extremely well, because that is one of the most important things in the job force. http://www.childrensacademy.com

  • Gaurav K

    This is very important as one can easily connect with the kids and kids can easily learn different things. It is important that the kids should be involved with smart and intelligent activities. There are many activities on kidsfront.com.

  • LovinCommonCore

    Fantastic way to use multiple intelligences to reach all students! It’s also great for Language Learners!

  • David Landy

    Nice article! Although many public school teachers emphasize physical motion, I do think that this kind of research helps shed light on just why and how movement and gesture help learning. In my own project, Graspable Math (http://graspablemath.com), we think of movement and pattern-seeking in the physical world as a grounding even for very abstract concepts. Beilock (who’s now the president of Barnard) is trying to give people experience with the concepts and situations being referred to–for abstract math, we try to supplement this by giving learners grounded experiences with the system itself.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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