Movement in the Classroom: Easy 21st Century Ideas to Use Tomorrow

movement in the classroom

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Here at Student-Centered World, we are HUGE promoters in flexible seating. The whole idea behind flexible seating is that a student will put forth their best work if they are in a position that they are the most productive. For some students, this is still at a traditional desk. For others, this could be standing, sitting on the floor, or laying down.

Allowing this movement in the classroom will help a student (no matter what age) determine how they work best.

We are always so concerned about finding learning styles so they know how they LEARN best, but what about how they WORK best? Giving them this autonomy (with guidelines, for sure….certainly not a free-for-all!) allows them to learn more about themselves and how they will perform at their peak.

Even as adults, we do this. My husband, for instance, needs to sit at a table with all his belonging placed accordingly around him. Me? I work best propped up against 105 pillows….neither of us can concentrate well in the other scenario, but why do we require this of our students when it’s so easy to, well, NOT?

Movement in the Classroom

Today I came across two amazing articles that explain the science behind why traditional seating isn’t the best for our Generation Z students who sit in front of us (or around us in an actual student-centered classroom).

The first article is from Valerie Strauss, with a focus piece from Aleta Margolis, in the Washington Post titled Letting kids move in class isn’t a break from learning. It IS learning. I think that title in and of itself is so telling. We have been trained to believe that a student sits quietly until they are given a break.

This is the INDUSTRIAL MODEL, we are no longer an industrial society! We are turning into a hands-on society of entrepreneurs.

Will that be everyone? Of course not….but it will be a bigger majority of our students than before. As a matter of fact, we are preparing today’s students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

Seem far-fetched? How many people that you went to high school with wanted to be a social media manager as a job? What about work for Uber? We take jobs for granted now that didn’t exist all too long ago.

Chew on that one for a minute.

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Ms. Margolis brings up an excellent point in her article. When it comes to student movement in the classroom, she says by having the students physically doing something, it creates more of an understanding of that particular process than if they were just passively learning about it, which makes complete and total sense.

My son just took his training wheels off his bike and even though he mentally knew how to ride, he physically couldn’t until he went through the motions enough times that it clicked. ALL learning is like this! My favorite line from the piece is this:

Incorporating movement-based activities can help learners of all ages articulate and internalize new ideas, and this process invites adult participants to leave their comfort zone and reexamine their roles as both teachers and learners. They explore the relief that students feel at being invited to move, as well as the uncertainty and shyness that can arise when something new and unexpected is introduced.

Truer words have never been spoken. Still many people balk at the idea of the normalcy of movement in the classroom because it’s not traditional. Why can’t kids today sit still long enough to learn…WE did it, why can’t they? A few reasons.

Number one, the average attention span has dropped DRASTICALLY since we have become a society of instant gratification. Know how long it was when public education was created? About 20 minutes. Know how long it is now? Approximately 7 SECONDS. SECONDS. #notatypo.

We literally cannot expect the students in front of us to learn the way other generations have. You will be fighting a losing battle if you think you’re going to overcome the odds here. Movement in the classroom is now essential to learning.

It’s legitimately a vicious cycle.

As a matter of fact, another article from the Washington Post by Mrs. Strauss and Angela Hanscom titled, A therapist goes to middle school and tries to sit still and focus. She can’t. Neither can the kids, may just be the most eye-opening article you will ever read about movement in the classroom (seriously…click on that link and read it…I won’t be offended if you’re taken off track for a few minutes).

The teachers know students should move, but they feel locked into cramming a ton of information into their brains (more than again, you guessed it, previous generations were required) and don’t see a choice. With this, students are losing focus, developing sedentary lifestyle habits, and not actually acquiring the learning that the teacher is trying their hardest to accomplish.

Recess is being cut shorter and shorter and the society of fear we have grown into is preventing these kids from running around and playing outside after school (not to mention, there is often homework to “reinforce” what was “learned” that day in a state of unfocused cramming).

To quote her, after 90 minutes of being in the classroom,

I’m mentally exhausted and the day has just begun. I was planning on observing the whole day. I just can’t do it. I decide to leave right after lunch.

This is why “traditional” learning without movement in the classroom just isn’t the best method of instruction for our students anymore. It’s not.

With the requirements to learn more and more and the time to simply “be a kid” becoming less and less, something needs to change. We need to incorporate student movement in the classroom without it being a special treat. The students need to move for not only their physical and mental wellbeing but also so they actually learn.

Plain and simple…where will they learn more: actively trying to solve a problem or actively trying to stay awake?

Friends, incorporating student-centered learning isn’t difficult. It’s different.

Encouraging student movement in the classroom is not difficult. It’s different.

Switching teaching styles just go against the grain of how so many people view what education is supposed to be. But tell me….what is education SUPPOSED to be?

It is supposed to be students going to school and learning. It doesn’t HAVE to look like anything in particular, so why can’t it be a model that today’s students will actually get more out of?

The most intimidating part of student-centered learning is that there really isn’t much out there that truly explains HOW to do it. There’s a ton of information about how relevant it is and there is data that shows how much it works, but there isn’t much that says, “here, try this”.

Being afraid of change is no excuse to not give it a try. We teach so we can help our future leaders learn.

Coming up with ideas for movement in the classroom can seem overwhelming, but take a deep breath because it doesn’t have to when you’re focusing on the right pieces to this puzzle.

Here are some ideas for physical movement in the classroom and ways to encourage students to be more active.

To begin, let’s consider age level. The activities will vary depending on what grade or level you teach. Some activities can be used with all ages, so it’s always good to have a few in your repertoire that you can pull out when the moment is right.

Preschool and Kindergarten

You can incorporate basic coordination activities such as relay races, obstacle courses, and “Simon Says”. The basic rules of those games can be adapted to fit your setting. If children are too young for those games, try something simple like Simon says shadow. Have the children stand in front of a mirror and play Simon Says with their reflection, trying to mimic every movement they see.

One idea for an obstacle course is having balloons taped or tied to different parts of the room that the students have to run to first before coming back through other obstacles, such as by crawling under a table, hopping like a rabbit, or jumping like a frog.

Here’s another idea: blow bubbles to the children and have them try to pop as many as they can using different parts of their body, but telling them that they may not use any part of their body more than once.

For this activity, you can blow bubbles on one side of the room for the children to run to one side of the room, pop them with their hands or feet, and run back. You can either do this on both sides of the room, or you can blow the bubbles at random throughout the course so that they don’t know where they will be coming from next. Or if they are too young to do the popping, have them punch the bubbles without popping them.

Elementary School

Incorporating movement in the classroom for elementary students can include activities such as :

Bounce a ball with them as they hop on one foot or jump rope. You can also use this for those students who need to maintain movement in the classroom during seatwork such as textbook reading. Have them bounce the ball while they read so that they keep their eyes moving and don’t lose interest in sitting still at a desk for long periods of time.

For reading activities, keeping track of how many times the student touches the ball while they are reading can be a way to encourage them to read more often and with purpose. After a certain amount of time has passed, you can have them stop and tally their total for that session. If they reach or exceed their target number, reward them with a prize.

If they don’t reach their target, you can either end the session or let them keep going until they meet their goal or exceed it. If this is your objective (to get students reading more) then you will go with one of the latter options. For instance, if reaching five touches while reading motivates them to read more, then they will just need to continue reading until they reach five touches for this session.

This can also encourage students who aren’t as motivated about reading because you are offering them an incentive. It may not be a tangible reward such as stickers or candy (you know what age we’re talking about), but it could be something like drawing a picture, free time at the end of the day, or maybe even get to go out for recess before anyone else. These are just ideas to get you thinking about how movement in the classroom can be incorporated.

If it is an extra incentive that they need, then this activity will work well too. Have students stand up and move around for a certain amount of time (maybe during language arts or science class), then tell them that they can sit down, but anyone sitting down will be out of the game. If sitting is their choice, let it be; however, you might want to make this an activity worth playing if it’s not something everyone does all the time. Competition between teams or with the class as a whole is sometimes what you need to get students motivated.

The game can be played with about four or five players per team, and there are no wrong answers, so you will want to make sure that everyone gets a turn. You could even have extra players on each team who don’t participate in the actual activity but just run back and forth to switch teams.

When it’s time for the game to begin, you say the number of seconds that they need to stay standing in place once they are tagged or hit by someone else. You can either play this game in a straight line so that there is only one way out, or you can have them move around in a circle so that they can go out any way they want and the game is more challenging.

movement in the classroom

Middle School

For middle school-aged students, it is a bit trickier since they are in that “too cool for school” phase, but you can still get some movement in the classroom in unique ways. They might be a little more interested in having a dance party with their friends rather than doing activities at the board, but if you offer this as an alternative or make it a requirement – they will participate.

There are many fun and engaging songs that you can play for students to do something different from what they normally would be doing in class. You can even make it a contest to see who can stay in rhythm the longest, and for every correct answer they get, they can move one step forward. But if they break out of the rhythm or stop moving altogether, then you need to start over from where everyone is standing.

This is a great way for students to release some energy when they don’t have the time to take a break and play a physical game. You decide the length of the song and how many times it needs to be played before everyone can sit down and get back to business.

You can also incorporate movement in the classroom as a way to transition from one activity to another, such as sitting down or getting ready for a test. If you normally do this with students lined up and walking in quietly, try having them crawl around the room like they’re animals instead.

If your students are working on writing an essay, there is no need to sit there the entire time. Give them ten minutes to work on it, then have them stand up and walk around for three minutes while they brainstorm their ideas. Then you can give them another five or ten minutes to write an outline or first draft before they go back to walking again.

You can even use physical responses to help students learn new material or concepts. If you tell them they are going to do a certain activity, such as jumping jacks, they need to stand up and do it with you before everyone sits down. For a math teacher, have the class clap three times when he or she says something that relates to addition, then stop when they say another number word. Make it a race among teams if you have multiple classes in one day, so if they get it wrong, the other class gets to move forward.

This is a great way for students to use their minds and bodies simultaneously, so they get more out of learning than just the facts you are trying to convey. They can even practice test-taking by having them stand up and walk around when you mention certain topics on the exam that will appear later on.

There are many different ways to get your students to embrace movement in the classroom, and you can make it an everyday part of your lesson plan for any grade level. It will help them focus, give them more energy which can boost their academic success, and even get their creative juices flowing since they are thinking outside of the box.

High School and Beyond

High school is also its own unique beast when it comes to appropriate movement in the classroom. For older students, you can use activities that are used for fitness tests in schools, such as sit-ups, squats, jump rope skipping for distance or time, push-ups, etc. The goal is to perform these activities within a certain amount of time. For example, have students do as many sit-ups as they can within a minute. For every ten correct reps, you give them a chance to take a break before starting again at zero.

If PhysEd is not your cup of tea, there are other movement in the classroom activities that could work ranging from permanent flexible seating to actual games that high schoolers would absolutely buy into.

The flexible seating idea is great because students can move any time they feel like it, be it to get more focused, release some energy or even take care of a wiggly body. It also helps them with movement breaks throughout the day for their minds to rest while still getting out some physical activity.

Physical movement in the classroom during teaching time is a great way to get the students more engaged in what they are learning. They can make connections, react to stimuli and practice anything from memorization to problem-solving by playing games. The best part is that no matter what age you teach or how long you’ve been teaching, there are ways for everyone to get involved and benefit from movement in the classroom.

The idea of using games for academic purposes is not only fun but also something that students are likely to buy into immediately because they enjoy playing games. You can create the game yourself (which usually works best) or there are plenty of online resources to check out for ideas, too (Pinterest is your friend!).

The list of games that can be played to teach academic subjects is practically endless. They are great for review before an assessment, especially if they are timed so students have to move quickly between topics. You can also do a group activity where there are several small games with movement questions per round. It’s easy enough to infuse movement in the classroom activities into a normal class period to get students up and moving around. Whether you’re a grade-school teacher, a junior high/middle school instructor, or even an adult instructor in higher education, there are ways that everyone can have fun while getting the most out of their classes.

Movement in the Classroom and the 4 Keys


Finding effective ways to allow movement in the classroom isn’t difficult, it just needs to ebb and flow with the students and where they are (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Being flexible is the key to making all of this work. The key is engagement. There are four keys to student engagement that I discuss in my video training challenge that releases twice per year. It is called “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula” and it walks you through those four keys and how to implement them in the classroom.

If you are interested in registering (it’s totally free), visit the Finding Your Student Engagement Formula Challenge registration page and you will be notified the next time the series is available.

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