Why movement in learning spaces is so important for wellbeing.
Whoever coined the phrase ‘sit still and concentrate’ probably never had the pleasure of teaching a group of fidgety four-year-olds or twitchy teenagers. And in this case, it’s the kids who have the right idea. Movement within learning spaces has a multitude of positive benefits, from improving concentration and behaviour, to creating a healthier and more inclusive learning environment that delivers a better learning experience for all.
To quote our good friend, Professor Stephen Heppell:
“Where we build movement into learning, outcomes improve.”
Here's a brief look at why…
Movement increases the flow of oxygenated blood, which is fuel for the brain, improving concentration, reducing fatigue and improving cognitive performance. If you compare the brain activity scans of children taking an exam, where one group took a 20-minute walk beforehand and one group sat quietly, the difference is night and day. The first group’s scans are brightly lit, showing vastly more cognitive activity than those who sat still. Learners who can move around different zones within learning spaces maintain their energy levels throughout the day; the post-lunch slump doesn’t happen. It goes without saying that children who are less tired are better able to concentrate.
Healthier for growing bodies
Children instinctively know what’s good for their bodies, which is why they don’t stay still for long. Fidgeting, stretching, leaning back in their chairs are all attempts to find a healthier and more comfortable position. Children can spend up to 15,000 hours at school over the years when their soft bones are most vulnerable to deformation from being forced into unnatural sitting positions for long periods of time. Ergonomic seating is important, and movement is crucial. Quite apart from the health risks associated with lack of movement or poor-quality seating at school, it’s also about comfort. Comfort is not a luxury, it’s crucial to educational outcomes and it’s achievable by offering a variety of seating options and a choice in how and where to work.
Choice, agency and inclusivity
If we want children to develop a broad range of skills, from self-directed learning to collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, you have to offer them choice and agency. Creating clear zones for different types of activities means children learn to choose the best place for their task. Clearly defined zones also help anchor learning in the long-term memory (I remember doing that in the ‘Explore’ zone) and prime behaviour appropriate to the space (no loud talking in the ‘Quiet’ area). Different children will choose different spaces, and offering the ability move and make a choice creates an inclusive learning space where every child can meet their needs and find their place. This has a particularly positive impact on neurodiverse children and those with additional needs.
How to build movement into your learning space
If you want to build movement into your learning space, you need to make some room. One of the most common problems we come across is cramming a classroom with a table and a chair for each child, which inhibits movement and limits choice. As a first step, take out some tables, so you can think what else you can introduce and how you can create clearly defined zones which children can move between. Individual tables can be moved around so you’re more likely to switch things up and vary your layouts. If you can change the layout frequently, rather than it being the same every day, it helps switch on the brain’s learning systems because children have to think about where to go and what to do rather than doing the same thing every day. A flexible layout also helps break down social cliques by encouraging greater mixing.
Turn & Learn
Ergonomic Saddle Stool
So, embrace and enable the fidgeting!
Create a learning space where movement is positively, joyously encouraged. Let them stand up, sit down, move around, choose where and how they want to work. Let them sprawl on the floor, stand at a high table, sit at a ‘normal’ table, huddle up on tiered seating. Create clearly defined zones, including some quiet spaces, and watch the learning and behaviour improve. It’s not rocket science, but it is neuroscience and having seen it in action we can tell you – it really works.