Author: Peggy Ployhar
Published in: THSC Review August 2016
Published on: Aug. 1, 2016

Every once in a while, the Texas Home School Coalition Special Needs Department gets a call from a parent saying, “I can’t get my student to sit still. How can we get any work done if my child can’t sit long enough to complete an assignment?” Although there are many variables involved in answering this question, the biggest hurdle I usually encounter is trying to help this parent realize that sitting still doesn’t mean learning is happening; quiet desk work doesn’t mean the best learning method is being delivered.

In fact, learning and movement go hand in hand. Many new studies decisively show that lack of movement actually decreases overall brain function, thus increasing the overall time a child needs to process new data. The science behind how movement affects learning has to do with the delivery of two very important chemicals to the brain which stimulate faster thinking. In an active child, oxygen and glucose are constantly being delivered to the brain; but once a child sits, it takes less than ten minutes for those resources to be pulled away from the brain and for learning to slow down and a sleepy state to set in.

Unfortunately, most research done on the connection between learning and movement is done on test subjects who are typical learners—not children with special needs. In his book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen (cofounder of SuperCamp, the nation’s first brain-compatible learning program) states that movement in a special needs educational setting can be a game changer in helping students get past learning barriers that the traditional “sit in your seat and learn” type of teaching exasperates:

“Many teachers have found that programs that include movement help learners with special needs. Several hypotheses may explain this phenomenon. Many special-needs learners are stuck in counterproductive mental states, and movement is a quick way to change them. Second, movements, such as those involved in playing active games, will activate the brain across a wide variety of areas. It may be the stimulation of those neural networks that helps trigger some learning. For other students, it may be the rise in energy, the increased blood flow, and the amines that put them in a better mood to think and recall. Some routines that call for slower movement can do the reverse, calming down students who are overactive, hence supporting a state of concentration.”

Sharing Jensen’s findings usually helps a questioning parent accept that movement and learning should be added to the child’s homeschool curriculum. But, this is the question that always follows: “So, how do I teach them while they are moving?” I give the following suggestions:

  • Do flashcards while pacing the floor.

  • Put math facts on sheets of paper at your student’s hand height up a flight of stairs. Have the child touch the sheets one at a time while repeating the information.

  • Go beyond sitting and listening to songs that teach educational facts. Make up movements to go along with the songs.

  • Practice storytelling while on walks. One person thinks of three things to be included in the story, and another person makes up the story and tells it to the others walking with them.

  • Buy washable window markers, and have your students do their writing on the window while standing. Or, add a large blackboard to your classroom.

  • Do longer read aloud selections while your children are eating lunch or folding clothes.

  • Create a hopscotch grid that your students can use to “jump out” their spelling words.

  • Practice sight words by putting them on a wall; then, have your child read them after shooting them with a nerf gun.

  • Have your student skip count while jumping on a mini trampoline.

  • Graph math equations on the driveway with chalk.

  • Instead of doing matching activities with pen and paper, write out the items to be matched on post-it notes and have your student tape yarn to connect the matching items.

  • Have an older child practice writing skills by creating a scavenger hunt with handwritten clues that need to be written clearly and concisely for the hunter to understand and follow.

Although it would be nice to adapt all learning activities to include movement, I realize it is not always possible. Thus, my final bit of advice is to urge parents to alternate their students’ seated learning time with active learning and to limit the seated activities to ten-minute chunks. I also tell them that, over time, their students may learn to increase seated learning time. If not, the practice of switching from inactive to active learning is a good coping skill into adulthood.

If you have questions about homeschooling your struggling learner or special needs child, check out the Special Needs section of the THSC website.

Printed with permission of the author and Texas Home School Coalition. This article originally appeared in Review magazine.