In Defense of Active Learning

In the past, based on what they knew about and observed in young children, early childhood teachers designed their programs to meet their students' developmental needs. Play and active learning were considered key tools to accommodate those needs and facilitate the children's education. Typical activities included:

  • Sorting and stacking blocks and other manipulatives (providing mathematical knowledge)
  • Singing and dancing, or acting out stories (emergent literacy)
  • Growing plants from seeds, exploring the outdoors, and investigating at sand and water tables (scientific knowledge)
  • Trying on various roles and interacting with one another at housekeeping and other dramatic-play centers (social studies).

Today, these types of lessons are steadily disappearing. Due to an increasing emphasis on "academics" and accountability, policymakers are demanding more and more testing, which requires more and more seatwork.

There are two misconceptions advancing this trend. The first is the notion that the mind and body are separate entities -- and that the functions of the mind are superior to those of the body. I'll have more to say about this in a later post.

The second is that learning best occurs while children are seated. But a growing body of research is determining that physical activity activates the brain much more so than doing seatwork. While sitting increases fatigue and reduces concentration, moderate- to vigorous-intensity movement feeds oxygen, water, and glucose to the brain, optimizing its performance. Furthermore, learning by doing creates more neural networks in the brain and throughout the body, making the entire body a tool for learning. Active learning is also more fun and engaging for young children, which means it matters to them and is more likely to encourage lifelong learning.

It may no longer be acceptable to run, jump, and dance in the early childhood classroom simply for the joy and the physical and social/emotional benefits of it (sad but true), but what if movement and play have cognitive benefits? What if they can be used to help children meet standards?

Consider the following. When children move over, under, around, through, beside, and near objects and others, they better grasp the meaning of these prepositions and geometry concepts. When they perform a "slow walk" or skip "lightly," adjectives and adverbs become much more than abstract ideas. When they're given the opportunity to physically demonstrate such action words as stomp, pounce, stalk, or slither -- or descriptive words like smooth, strong, gentle, or enormous -- word comprehension is immediate and long lasting. The words are in context, as opposed to being a mere collection of letters. This is what promotes emergent literacy and a love of language.

Similarly, if children take on high, low, wide, and narrow body shapes, they'll have a much greater understanding of these quantitative concepts -- and opposites -- than do children who are merely presented with the words and their definitions. When they act out the lyrics to "Roll Over" ("There were five in the bed, and the little one said, 'roll over'..."), they can see that five minus one leaves four. The same understanding -- and fascination -- results when children have personal experience with such scientific concepts as gravity, flotation, evaporation, magnetics, balance and stability, and action and reaction.

There's a story I once came upon that helps illustrate the significance of active learning. A preschool teacher conducted a mock class with parents in which the lesson was to learn about kiwi fruit. Half of the parents were told about kiwis and then given a coloring sheet, along with brown and green crayons. The other half took a "field trip" to the tree in the hall, where they were able to smell, feel, and taste the fruit. Not surprisingly, the latter group of parents left with a much greater understanding of kiwis. And those were adults who, unlike young children, are well beyond the stage of concrete thinking. (This story also serves to illustrate that it is not only in early childhood education that active learning has benefits.)

Noted educator Eric Jensen labels the learning described above as implicit -- like learning to ride a bike. At the other end of the continuum is explicit learning -- like being told the capital of Peru. He asks, if you hadn't ridden a bike in five years, would you still be able to do it? And if you hadn't heard the capital of Peru for five years, would you still remember what it was? Explicit learning may get the facts across more quickly than learning through exploration and discovery, but the latter has far more meaning to children and stays with them longer.

In a discussion I facilitated for Body, Mind and Child, titled "Teaching Children Who Just Won't Sit Still" (that is to say, almost all young children), four distinguished panelists challenged the notion that children need to sit still to learn. Among them is neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford, who tells us that we learn 80% of what we experience physically and sensorially but only 10% of what we read. She also boldly states, "If we didn't move, we wouldn't need a brain."

Policymakers, please tune in.