Tracy Auerbach believes that kinesthetic learning techniques improve vocabulary learning across disciplines
When I first began teaching science to grades K-2, I was struck by the amount of content knowledge and vocabulary that my young students were expected to retain. As I designed my lessons, I began thinking about the multiple intelligences to which I was catering. Nine out of my ten classes were integrated team teaching classes, and the tenth was an inclusion class. I knew right away that most of the curriculum would have to be hands-on. I stretched the investigations I had planned almost to the point of organized chaos in an effort to make my lessons active and engaging for all learners.* I began to wonder whether this style of learning through activity would actually encourage my students to become more active learners. Here are my observations about the effects of kinesthetic learning on various aspects of education, and some of the strategies I have begun to incorporate in my own teaching.
Although I feared it would be difficult to regroup my students after an exciting experiment, I have observed that they are much more eager to share their discoveries than when they have been sitting and listening for a long period of time. I will use the example of an investigation that was completed with my second graders to teach force and momentum. Pairings of students received a long ramp and a marble. Their task was to find as many ways as they could to roll the marble down the ramp so that it completed the course uninterrupted from beginning to end. After completing the investigation, we returned to the carpet to share our discoveries. The students were asked to turn and talk to choose the ramp design they wished to share.
As I listened in on my students’ conversations, I was amazed to hear the new vocabulary “force” and “momentum” woven seamlessly throughout their conversations. One pair wanted to show the class a loop design where the top of the ramp was raised to allow for more momentum. They sounded like engineers as they discussed the pros and cons of the loop being too high (the marble can fall off) vs. too low (not enough momentum to complete the loop). I have never been more impressed with the quality of my students’ accountable talk than after they have been stimulated, mind and body, by authentic kinesthetic experiences.
Acquisition of Abstract Concepts
One particularly memorable moment for me was the second parent teacher conference, when one parent of a special needs child in the first grade approached me with some questions. She simply did not understand how her daughter was doing so well when she had read my newsletter saying that we were studying states of matter. She wanted to know specifically how her daughter’s difficulties (she has tremendous difficulty with abstract concepts) were being addressed.
The answer was that kinesthetic experiences were helping to make abstract concepts more concrete. For example, when teaching about how gasses can affect liquids and solids, the class walked outside and observed the leaves blowing in the wind. We ran with the wind and then against it to determine which way provided more resistance. We launched toy paratroopers and observed how the air caught and slowed the parachutes. We blew bubbles and noticed which way the wind took them. The end result was a class where the majority of children, regardless of their abilities or learning style, had found at least one experience which spoke to them on a personal level about how a gas has the ability to affect another state of matter.
Retention of Key Concepts and Vocabulary
I was curious to see if my kindergarten students could incorporate the words “evergreen” and “deciduous” into their working vocabulary. I first introduced the words while reading books and looking at pictures of trees. The students practiced saying them, and I quizzed them at the end of each lesson. I first incorporated movement into the vocabulary acquisition by having the students get up and actually act out the two types of trees while saying their names. Deciduous trees blow a lot in the breeze, and their leaves puff out like a cloud. They lose their leaves in the fall, and in the spring new buds form. Evergreen or coniferous trees are shaped more like triangles. The snow makes the needles sag down in the winter but they don’t fall off. The students acted this all out with their arms and bodies.
Finally we took several walks outside and observed the trees around our school, noting the changes they went through over the course of the year. So far the students have impressed me by retaining these two words. An interesting test will be to see how many of them remember the vocabulary at the beginning of the first grade.
Impact on my teaching style
My discoveries regarding the benefits of kinesthetic learning have influenced me to make several changes to my teaching style. These include:
• Frequent “field trips” around the school property to explore subject matter
• Physically acting out of new concepts and vocabulary when possible
• Pairing students with a task and revolving talk around planning and completion of the task
• Repetition of introduction to a new concept in several different ways and in several different settings
• Exposure to manipulatives and live
samples whenever possible
• Pairing of literature with either manipulatives or physical dramatic activity
• Thinking of learning as “investigations” rather than “lessons.”
• Limited carpet time and frequent movement breaks
• A shift in classroom volume from complete quiet to a “level 3” (speaking voice) murmur
• Allowing students to work in a space on the floor rather than confining them to their desks
• Using games to help students process and review information
• Organizing science periods as labs
As I reflect upon the year, I find that science has been an enjoyable experience for me and my students. I find them eagerly awaiting me when I arrive for our weekly time together, and they always excitedly ask “What are we going to do today?” They are excited to point out that they have science twice in a day, if their teacher’s lesson happens to fall on the same day as mine. All of this makes it worthwhile to take the time to organize manipulatives and live samples for experiments, to work with insects, and to become more comfortable with organized noise and movement.
I have found myself extending these strategies to other subjects, including SDI (Social Development Intervention for students with autism), Word Work, and in the morning sibling club I teach. Discovering the value of kinesthetic learning has helped me to stretch my boundaries as a teacher and to become more flexible as an adult stepping into a child’s world; a world filled with bright colors, noise, unrestrained movement, and endless discoveries.
* Several investigations were inspired by Full Option Science System (FOSS), which teaches through hands-on, authentic experiences in science.
Tracy Auerbach teaches Kindergarten through second grade science at P.S.186 in Queens, New York. She is licensed in special education, and has spent ten years educating children with varied needs. This year, she made a discovery between incorporating movement into lessons and the vocabulary and content acquisition of students.