Movement in the Classroom: Why it Matters and my Plans to Incorporate More

Sitting all day is a struggle.

Kids need to move to learn.

Sitting in their desks all day makes students sleepy and disengaged.

Our kids sit in desks all day, moving for four minutes every hour as they hustle to their next classes, then sitting again. That’s not good for their health or their learning.

None of this is rocket science. I’ve known this for a long time, and I’ve always tried to give my students the chance to get up — planning activities that require them to move around, telling them that they can stand and work if they need to, even allowing the occasional bathroom break when I know the kid doesn’t really need to pee, just to move. This summer, though, I’ve done more research on the evils of sitting and benefits of allowing kids more natural movement, and I’ve decided that my former efforts are not enough. It’s time to up my classroom movement game.

This learn-about-movement quest of mine started as I listened to Ben Greenfield’s podcast. In one episode, he mentioned this school in California, which is trying to raise enough money to purchase standing desks for every student. Greenfield explained that this project is great, because we need to teach kids that “they don’t need to sit to get sh*t done.”  Amen, Ben.

For the next few days, I paid closer attention to my own learning process. I was reading a book on pedagogy — a book that I wanted to learn a lot from. As I read, I moved from standing, to sitting on my stability ball, to draping myself, belly-down, over the ball, to pacing. This is natural for me; I can’t just sit and study. I’ve never been able to. And then it  hit me: If learn best when I’m moving, why am I not giving my students the same opportunities?

I dug deeper into the research, buying James Levine’s book Get Up: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It. (Side note: Everyone in America should read this book. Seriously, it’s fantastic). In the book, Levine details his decades-spanning research into sitting and how it’s literally killing us. Diabetes, obesity, and a slew of other health problems are directly related to our proclivity for sitting in chairs all day.

Most relevant to my current interests was Levine’s chapter on learning, but the chapter on workplaces that encourage NEAT (nonexercise activity thermogenesis — i.e., not sitting all day) was also helpful. Levine names eight benefits of NEAT workplaces:

“1. Increased productivity
2. Improved health measures and decreased healthcare costs
3. Decreased employee stress
4. The ripple effect: Although these programs are delivered to the workplace, we consistently see the benefits ripple into employees’ home lives.
5. Increased happiness
6. Positive atmosphere
7. Decreased staff turnover
8. Hiring advantage” (137).

While the last two aren’t as relevant to the classroom, the first six are absolutely things I’d love to see in my students. The chapter on learning provided even more evidence that our kids need to move more. Levine and his team designed a NEAT school –one in which students were free to stand, sit, walk, shoot baskets, etc., all while learning their lessons —  and studied the students’ learning. Here’s what they found:

  • “[Parents] reported that their children came home from school more relaxed and happier to do homework.”
  • Students diagnosed with ADHD were able to focus on lessons without becoming a distraction to others
  • Student test scores (because we all know how important those are these days) “improved by 10 to 20 percent.”
  • “[A]ctive learning is associated with improved educational attainment and better health” (161).

Now, obviously, I’ve got to take baby steps here. I can’t exactly convert my entire school into a NEAT school in the month before classes resume. But Levine and his staff also found that “using a NEAT classroom for only 45 minutes per day increased a student’s activity for more than 36 hours” and that after just one class period, “students were more active for the rest of the day” (159). Even more encouraging: Levine also found that a mere five minutes of movement increased kids’ activity over the course of the day.

What are those baby steps I’ll be taking to increase NEAT in my classroom? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Get a few stability balls so my kids can still be sitting, technically, but also engaging more muscles and moving more naturally while working.
  • Move my two torso-height bookshelves out from the wall so kids can stand behind them and use them as standing desks (I use them when I’m grading presentations, and it works fine. I just need to give the kids space to get back there… and find a new home for the junk I store behind them).
  • Keep clipboards handy so kids can stand or pace slowly while still writing.
  • Incorporate more movement-centric studying — simple things like jumping or walking while memorizing prepositions, for example.

That’s where I’m at right now. I know this is a running blog, but it’s my running blog, so I plan to write occasional updates here: one, it might give other teachers ideas and allow people to give me more ideas, and two, the accountability of posting about this will help prevent the mid-year “let’s just go back to what we know” trap that we all tend to fall into.

How much do you sit on a given day? 

Any other suggestions for how I can create a sit-less classroom?

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13 thoughts on “Movement in the Classroom: Why it Matters and my Plans to Incorporate More”

  1. I had John change one of my desks into a standing desk and the students fought over it! I asked for another one this year. I also rearranged my furniture to allow me to stand and move more. Now if I could just figure out how to battle the kidney table two hour sitting session! I think there are a lot of the little small desks from first grade that they got rid of for tables. Maybe John could make them taller for you.

  2. Love this! My kids, especially the freshman, get so antsy by the end of the day from all the sitting. I have done a: everybody stand up and share one fact about x (study guide, from the reading, what your partner said), and as soon as you share you can sit down. Some other teachers do walk and talks. They pair up students, give them a question or two and then go for a lap around the school while they discuss the topic. The kids love it!

  3. If they ever need to quiz each other using flash cards or study guides, take them outside to walk around the track with a friend to do the quizzing. And if there are kids that don’t want to walk and maybe just want to lay in the grass at least they could be outside.

    I’m a pod cast freak and always listen to them while I am walking, driving, or working out. You could suggest to your students to record their notes or even your lectures (if you lecture) and then they could listen to them again at some point while they are doing whatever.

  4. These are neat ideas (see what I did there?) 😉
    I’m looking forward to see how you can implement it! I wonder if pacing students could make it a little chaosy, but I’m sure it will be a matter of trial and error. Good luck!

    1. That looks great for elementary! I teach high school, so this particular software/program wouldn’t apply for me, but I love the concept and I love that so many more people are starting to realize the need to get kids up and moving!

  5. It is SO important for kids to be active. I am a firm believer that human beings are meant to move, so last year I incorporated as much moving as I could into my room. This is especially important to the population I teach. The kids come in SO much more calm and behaviors are decreased when there is more movement throughout the day. I also make it a point to rarely sit in my room. I sit A LOT at home, I don’t need to do it at work also.

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