Kids have different learning styles.
Some learn better by reading, some by listening, some through visual aids, like pictures and videos, and some are kinesthetic learners that learn by doing.
As professional educator, we’ve heard it all before. We know what the data says. We understand the concept of multiple intelligences, and we feel the pain of our kids who are expected to sit stationary for hours on end. We recognize the need to differentiate instruction, and we genuinely want to make learning fun. It seems, however, that so often we are thrown the data and the philosophies, yet rarely given real-life examples or shown how to actually implement them!
I have tried really hard to get kids moving in my classroom. Of course, I don’t do these things everyday. Some days, I just have to lecture, or we have to read and write, and that’s just the way it is. Other days, however, I can be flexible, and those are the days I try to implement more kinesthetic activities.
There are occasions where a visitor to my classroom might wander in and wonder: “Is a teacher is even in control in here?” And the answer is YES! Kinesthetic learning can be messy. It can be loud, and sometimes you can feel on the verge of losing control! I’ve learned, however, that every time I do an activity in my classroom, the students retain the information better. Not necessarily because they are “kinesthetic learners” but because they have fun and form an emotional and memorable connection to the content. Don’t be afraid of a little “controlled chaos” every now and then.
Here are some examples you can feel free to use in your classroom. I teach high school social studies, but perhaps these activities can be adapted to lessons in other subject areas, or they can just get your gears turning on a new kinesthetic learning idea!
I use an obstacle course in my World History class to introduce the Age of Exploration. I split students into groups and instruct them to blindfold one group member. Then, the others create an obstacle course using desks, chairs, and their own bodies to talk their blind “explorer” through. This activity can take 10 minutes to 30, depending on how many times you repeat it with different group members becoming the “explorer.” The rest of the day, I lecture and the students take notes. It can take awhile to calm down after all the obstacle course excitement, but in the end, I feel like the focus is better because they got to expend a bit of energy and get their blood moving and faces smiling before settling in. I’ve always thought an obstacle course could serve as a good trust or team building activity for the beginning of the school year as well!
When I taught geography, we learned about different tectonic plate boundaries. Divergent boundaries pull apart, convergent boundaries push together, and transform boundaries slide past one another. And so, to learn and review these different types, I had the kids stand up and when I said the name of a plate boundary, they had to make the motion with their hands. “Divergent!” Everyone’s hands pulled apart. “Convergent!” Everyone’s hands crashed together. It was a super quick activity and it was a really easy way to informally assess the kiddos. Bonus: during the test, I saw a bunch of kids stealthily making the hand motions at their seats to help them remember the vocab. Proud teacher moment!
This is probably the easiest way that I get kids up and moving… it almost feels like cheating! I like to use stations when I notice that there a several days in a row where I will be lecturing and students will be taking notes. Instead of creating a PowerPoint presentation for lecturing, I create “Info. Sheets” (sometimes still using PowerPoint) to hang around the room, and a worksheet asking students questions to make sure they comprehend the information. Then, instead of sitting, listening to me talk, and taking notes, students get up and wander around the room, finding the information for themselves. Blood is flowing, students are moving and learning, and no one is stuck listening to me talk for days on end!
Games are always a way to increase engagement. After all, who doesn’t want to win? (Especially if a candy or extra credit reward is involved!) Games can be as simple as a review activity where the first person to stand up or reach the finish line gets the first chance at answering the question, or they can be longer and more complex. One game format I use in both my geography and economics class is the Trading Game. In groups that represent different countries, students have to produce and trade paper shapes with one another and try to make the most money. I use this both to teach the basics of economics and voluntary exchange, and to illustrate the differences between developed and developing countries based on what amount of resources groups begin with. The students are constantly running around trying to trade with one another and sell their shapes to me, and they totally get emotionally involved in what’s happening! “Miss, this isn’t fair! We only started with half the paper as the other group!” or “Miss! Last round we could get a better price for our circles, but now the market changed! What do we do?” The students can easily remember the information if they learn by doing.
I love skits! I use them in particular for students to show different government or economic systems, an English teacher friend of mine uses skits for students to act out scenes from novels, and my friend who teaches science had her students perform skits to illustrate lab safety rules. Skits can be adjusted to fit almost any length of time. You could make it a serious project and give kids days to create a theatrical production, or give kids 10 minutes to create a 1-minute skit illustrating an easier concept. Below you’ll see the “Kardashians” teaching us about lab safety during science class. (Thanks for the pic Emma!)
Similar to games, but without the competitive aspect, simulations are awesome ways to get kids moving and give them an emotional connection to the content. One simulation I do to teach the Industrial Revolution is an assembly line simulation, complete with factory sound effects and a rather harsh foreman (me) to keep my workers on task. Another simulation for U.S. History fits with teaching the Indian Removal Act. It’s very simple. The students get “removed” from the classroom and have to go somewhere else much less comfortable for a while. These simulations are always followed by a reflection assignment to help students connect to the historical time period and try to understand the ways those people were feeling.
Now… this one is definitely specific to social studies. Trench Warfare Day in my world history class is by far my favorite teaching day of the year. The kids are split up into teams: Allies vs. Central Powers. Then, we fight! Using paper wads as “bullets” and turned over desks as “trenches,” students experience how difficult it was for soldiers to survive a trip into no-man’s land. Students roll dice to determine what happens to them in each round, from artillery strikes to trench foot. In between “battles,” students read primary source excerpts from soldiers’ journals to better understand the actual experiences of life in the trenches of World War I.