Kinesthetic learning is a term frequently used by educators on the assumption that it is automatically a ‘good’ thing. However, for those who experience the daily reality of teaching classes of noisy, exuberant children, where control – or the lack of it – is constantly on a knife edge, kinesthetic learning can be stressful and exhausting to manage. When used for its own sake rather than for a clearly identified educational purpose, it is also questionable to what extent it aids or leads to new learning.
So what exactly is kinesthetic learning? And what are the benefits for our language classes when kinesthetic learning is used purposefully?
Kinesthetic learning is to do with positively harnessing bodily movement and a variety of fine-tuned physical skills in the service of learning. It is associated with a ‘hands on’, ‘doing’ approach in which children are physically involved in the process of learning through such things as manipulating objects, movement, gym, aerobics, dance, drama, mime, craft activities or making models. Kinesthetic learning activities are usually actively engaging and enjoyable. They often lead children to develop a sense of timing and improved physical coordination. The learning that results is frequently the outcome of close association and coordination between body and mind.
When used purposefully, there are a number of invaluable benefits to kinesthetic learning activities which make the management challenge worthwhile:
- They help children to make connections between language and concepts.
Example: through using actions to show the big, small and tiny bowls, chairs and beds of the three bears in the traditional story, children more easily acquire concepts of relative size.
- They help children establish associations between words, sounds and meanings.
Example: through using arms to mime flying like a butterfly, children associate the action and the word.
- They help children to spell.
Example: through using an activity such as ‘Spelling gym’ in which children close their eyes, visualise familiar words and say and do actions to show the position of each letter (hands on shoulders = letter on the line e.g. ‘a’, ‘n’; arms in the air = stalk of letter above the line e.g. ‘t’, ‘l’; arms by sides = stalk of letter below the line e.g. ‘y’, ‘j’).
- They help children to understand points of grammar.
Example: through using an activity such as ‘Physical line-up’ * in which children have word cards and arrange themselves in a line to make a sentence, linking arms with the person next to them if their words can be contracted (e.g. There is = There’s).
- They provide reasons for listening that children respond and relate to.
Example: through following instructions to make a paper model.
- They aid memorisation and re-call.
Example: through seeing, doing or being reminded of the associated action e.g. flying like a butterfly, children are helped to remember the word.
- They support the development of cognitive skills, such as sequencing.
Example: through doing actions to first accompany listening to a story, and then using the actions as a prompt to reconstruct the sequence of events.
- They foster the development of communication skills, such as turn-taking.
Example: through manipulating objects such as picture cards in a communication game.
- They provide variety and necessary physical breaks.
Example: through getting children to read texts pinned to the wall rather than at their desks.
- They focus, or re-focus, children’s attention.
Example: through Brain Gym (R) or a short aerobic type activity.
- They increase children’s concentration span.
Example: through very young children following the physical actions in a finger story such as ‘Mr Wiggle and Mr Waggle’ * or as you do the thumb to little finger climbing actions in a rhyme or song such as ‘Incy, Wincy Spider’.
It has sometimes been claimed that there are three kinds of learners and/or learning styles: Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic = VAK. Some people have also talked about VARK in which the ‘R’ stands for ‘Reading & writing’, and others have talked about ‘VAK plus’ in which the ‘plus’ refers to the way we engage children through skilful questioning. Individual children are unique in the way they make sense of the world around them. However, there is no empirical evidence that children ever use only one sensory approach to learning. In our classes, therefore, it seems likely to be most effective to use a range of multi-sensory techniques which give children opportunities to learn in a variety of ways: through seeing, hearing, reading, writing (depending on age) and doing, as well as through the way we mediate activities and lead children to become increasingly curious and ‘hooked’ on what they are learning.
In a radio interview several years ago, Howard Gardner, originator of Multiple Intelligence theory said, “I remember seeing a movie about multiple intelligences where there were kids crawling along the floor and the legend said “bodily kinesthetic intelligence”. I said, “That’s not bodily kinesthetic intelligence, that’s kids crawling on the floor. This is making me crawl up the wall.”
The lack of purpose in what the children in the movie were doing, encapsulates the question we constantly need to ask ourselves about using kinesthetic learning activities: are they taking children’s learning forward and, if so, how?
It would be great to hear how you use kinesthetic learning activities in your classes so that they aid or lead to new learning and are not just “kids crawling along the floor”? Please do share!
* These activities are described in detail in 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom, Read C. Macmillan Education, 2007.
VARK is from N.D. Fleming and Mills, C. Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst to Reflection, To Improve the Academy, Vol. 11, 1992.
VAK plus is from Smith A. & Call N. The Alps Approach, Network Educational Press, 1999.
The illustration is by Teri Gower from Footprints 1, Read. C., Macmillan Education, 2008