movement based learning: the research

Movement Based Learning: The Research

What is Movement Based Learning?

Movement based learning is a concept that involves active movement or physical activity to keep the student engaged and to improve retention of the information.

Last week I introduced the topic of movement based learning and this week I want to discuss the advocacy and science behind it. As a brief refresher, movement based learning is a concept that involves active movement or physical activity to keep the student engaged and to improve retention of the information.

Movement based learning is only one term utilized to describe this style of learning however other terms that can be utilized are movement integration, brain boosters, active learning, classroom physical activity breaks and energizers. Educational settings such as classrooms that utilize this style of learning are known as active classrooms. Physical activity can be built into the lesson itself or occur as breaks outside of or between lessons. 

student needing a sensory break
How much movement is recommended for kids?

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), among other national & federal agencies recommend that children & adolescents ages 6 to 17 receive at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.1 Unfortunately, research shows that less than 1/3 of kids & adolescents are meeting this recommendation, engaging in less physical activity throughout their day.23 To add to this, in many school districts requirements for physical education have been reduced or eliminated, especially at the middle school and high school level.4 This is a very concerning trend which greatly influences the amount of time our children and adolescents spend sedentary, impacting their overall health and well-being.

As childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate, the HHS, the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) as well as various other federal agencies & national organizations have pushed to incorporate more physical activity INTO the classroom IN ADDITION to physical education and recess to assist children and adolescents in meeting this national recommendation.5 Research has shown that schools can play a critical role in ensuring children get 20-60 minutes of physical activity during the school day as well as play a vital role in modeling and educating students about physical activity & exercise.6789

This finding highlights how important schools are in this process and the practicality of utilizing schools as a place for children to learn about & participate in physical activity.5 Through Springboard to Active Schools, an initiative of the National Network of Public Health Institutes (NNPHI) and Health Resources in Action (HRiA), schools are encouraged to develop a Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program, part of the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model, which includes several components emphasizing the importance of physical activity.10 This program demonstrates a coordinated effort to improve fitness, limit time spent sedentary, assist children & teens in satisfying the 60 minute national recommendation, and to ultimately educate students on exercise & physical activity in order to promote skills and a life-long habit of regular physical activity.11

Why Movement Matters–The Science

Now let’s dive into the why and the science behind it! 

If you recall from this previous post, regular exercise & physical activity have a lot of physical, cognitive, and mental/emotional benefits such as:

  • Improves strength & endurance
  • Improves bone health & bone density
  • Improves cholesterol
  • Helps control weight & lowers body mass index (BMI)
  • Improves insulin sensitivity
  • Improves cardiorespiratory endurance
  • Improves blood pressure
  • Improves overall cognitive function
  • Positively impacts brain structure & function
  • Promotes learning 
  • Improves academic achievement
  • Improves mood
  • Reduces anxiety, depression & stress
  • Enhances self-esteem & confidence

Classroom physical activity provides another opportunity for students to partake in physical activity during the day (outside of PE & recess), increasing their daily physical activity level and promoting regular physical activity in turn yielding the above benefits.12 Making physical activity a part of classroom time, through movement based instruction/learning or activity breaks, presents its own set of benefits, however.13 Research indicates that classroom physical activity:

  • Increases motivation & enjoyment of the learning process.14
  • Decreases behavior problems and reduces disruptive behaviors (i.e. talking, fidgeting, spacing out, etc.).15
  • Improves concentration & ability to focus in order to stay on-task.16
  • Improves academic performance resulting in higher grades & test scores.17
  • Improves cognitive performance especially self-regulatory processes such as planning, organization, abstract problem-solving, and working memory.18

Classroom physical activity also promotes a sense of collaboration and connection as students are not desk-bound and able to interact with peers in a fun, safe manner, bolstering comfort, acceptance, and happiness.

Particularly for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, classroom physical activity has been shown to be beneficial as well as demonstrated a correlation with decreased use of medication to manage symptoms.19 Furthermore, kinesthetic learners who receive & integrate information better through physical movement & experience have been shown to benefit significantly from physical activity in the classroom.20Classroom physical activity also promotes a sense of collaboration and connection as students are not desk-bound and able to interact with peers in a fun, safe manner, bolstering comfort, acceptance, and happiness. Classroom conditions that promote connection between students and between students & teachers fosters a better foundation in which students are more engaged, appreciate & enjoy learning, and perform better academically.21 Last, but definitely not least, teachers can also experience the same health benefits from classroom physical activity when they are physically active themselves as well as serve as a role model for their students.22

Now…I realize this is a lot of information to digest! You may be asking yourself if classroom physical activity & movement based learning are best practice why aren’t more schools utilizing this? The culprits tend to be time & space constraints, ignorance/lack of education about this topic, and/or teaching philosophies that do not prioritize physical activity. In order to change this we have to continue to circulate this information to school boards, school administrators, principals, teachers, teachers aides, school staff, parents/caregivers, legislators, and really anybody who will listen!! Let’s do our students a favor and rethink the way our educational system is structured and ensure that the method of instruction we promote is most conducive to learning. 

See y’all next week!


Catherine C. Skelton, PT, DPT

Pediatric Physical Therapist 

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  2. National Physical Activity Plan Alliance. The 2018 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. Columbia, SC: National Physical Activity Plan Alliance; 2018.
  3. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2018. ↩︎
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Results from the School Health Policies and Practices Study 2014. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2015. ↩︎
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