How to Add Movement to Your Lessons

“If you feel thirsty, your students are probably dehydrated.” I learned this statement in college while training to become a backpacking leader for freshman orientation trips. We, as senior trip leaders, were tasked with keeping tabs on the needs of our groups by measuring our own energy levels and then imagining a (potentially) amplified version in our students. While the context of a classroom is different from the twists and turns of the Appalachian Trail, the idea is one that I’ve kept in my proverbial backpack ever since.

If you substitute the word “restless” for “thirsty,” the statement becomes even more relevant, since in a lot of cases it is the physical aspect of learning that gets forgotten or neglected when teachers (even really good teachers) plan dynamic lessons packed with content. I currently teach high school Humanities, but I also spent many years as a music teacher and a lower-school multi-subject classroom teacher; I’ve been able to use the physical movement litmus test in lots of different environments. To translate plainly from the quote above, “If you (as the teacher) could benefit from a physical break/change of position/stretch, your students are probably starving for one.”

So, what is physical movement in the classroom? At a basic level, it is just that: a stretch, a change from being seated to standing, or movement from one place to another. But as an integrated and intentional aspect of your lesson plan, physical movement can also be much more than that. It can be the key to keeping students engaged and cued up to learn; it can be a joyful and inspired break from a routine; it can be a classroom management tool that helps you hold the space for your students while also allowing them their personal freedom; and it can help build trust as you demonstrate (and students experience) a “catch and release” sort of rhythm to your room.

When I plan lessons, regardless of the length, I usually think of them in three parts (Intro, Main Lesson and “Outro”—to be defined below.) I try to make sure that at least one of these sections has an intentionally physical component or something that engages the body in some way. I also use the transitions in between them for additional, intentional movement.

In high school Humanities, an Intro could include a physical “Do Now” such as “With a partner, use all four of your hands to create a symbol that represents a concept from last night’s reading. Then find another pair. Share and explain your hand symbols and discuss the concepts you chose to represent.” This brief activity engages both body and mind and also adds a social mixing component that can help break the ice at the beginning of class.

An Outro is similar to an Intro, but instead of being a warm up, it is a cool down. (As a side note, the word “Outro” is borrowed from the world of music recording. When musicians record an Outro in the studio, they are creating a final section of music that serves both to end the piece and also to gracefully linger in someone’s head for a little while after the song ends. The Outro of a lesson, therefore, can have the same elements. It’s a closing, but also a continuation.) A physical Outro could be a “Ticket Out” activity such as: “On a post-it note, write down something from today’s lesson that resonates for you. On a separate post-it note, write down a lingering question or point of confusion.” Students can then post their responses in designated places on the board. These post-it notes can be incorporated into the next day’s Intro activity.

The Intros and Outros can be anything that engages the physical senses while warming up or winding down from a lesson. The transitions in between sections are similarly choreographed and can include formats such as “Walk and Talk” (where students take a 3-minute water break while walking and talking with a partner about a given prompt) or “Numbered Groupings” (where students take a short break and are expected to form groups of a certain size when class resumes.)

Often, the physical component you add to your lessons can be structured like a game. Here, you can gain ideas from teachers in fields such as P.E. and drama. These teachers have tons of games that they use for warm-ups. Each one can be modified to apply more completely to your subject area and then used as an Intro or Outro. Students of all ages can have fun with a game like “Captain’s Coming” (see link for instructions) and teachers of all subjects can modify the game to include terms and concepts from their particular discipline. When I was teaching music, I created “Conductor’s Coming,” and helped students review musical terms and concepts while physically forming the woodwind section or creating a vocal trio or quartet. The game invites physical movement and can also be used as a classroom management signal to bring classes back into session.

There are countless ways to incorporate physical movement. The important thing from my perspective is to check in with yourself and your students to see how physical movement could be incorporated into your routines. Your students will enjoy the break, and chances are, you will too.

Rachel Garlin is a multi-disciplinary teacher and faculty leader with over fifteen years of experience in the classroom. She received her BA in Social Studies from Harvard University and her teaching credential from Cal State. Rachel currently teaches high school Humanities at The Bay School in San Francisco; she also brings recent experience as a faculty leader and music specialist at Live Oak School. This will be Rachel’s fourth year as a co-facilitator in Teaching Foundations.