A recent article in the New York Times discussed why children should be given opportunities for movement during class. I wholeheartedly agree with this proposition – but not for the reasons stated.
Movement is far more important than a means to enable children to attentively sit for long periods of time.
Educators (and parents) need to understand that the need for movement goes beyond the value of aerobic exercise as cognitive and motor development are intertwined. Children with learning disabilities often have poor gross motor skills. And children with developmental coordination disorder and undiagnosed motor difficulties (including manual dexterity) score lower on measures of executive functioning skills (working memory, inhibition, task switching, planning, and verbal fluency) – skills necessary not only for academic achievement but also for life.
This relationship between movement and higher-level thinking, or executive functions, makes sense given what we now know about how the brain operates: subcortical brain regions involved in movement (the basal ganglia and cerebellum) communicate reciprocally with higher, cortical regions. This view of brain functioning is different from the traditional paradigm in which the top of the brain (cortical) dominated the rest of the brain (subcortical).
For years it was assumed that thought only occurs within the higher, cortical regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex. Thus, the prefrontal cortex was tasked to direct the rest of the brain – especially those primitive subcortical regions. Essentially, thought, even within neuroscience, was disconnected from the movement of the body. But what the data now show is that those cortical regions are simply part of the circuitry for higher-level thinking, and that circuitry includes the subcortical regions. As Stanford neurologist Josef Parvizi states, the data suggest that “the so-called ‘higher’ functions of the brain might in fact depend on signals from subcortical to cortical structures rather than the other way around” (p. 358). Neuroscience now recognizes that thought is not disembodied as movement and cognition are closely intertwined.
This current understanding of how the brain operates is important for educators to know for two reasons: 1) because children are not born with well-developed motor systems, and 2) because some of the subcortical regions (particularly the cerebellum) continue to develop during adolescence just as the prefrontal cortex does. For these two reasons, educators – who should be designing school from a developmental rather than efficiency perspective – need to create learning environments in which children of all ages have constant opportunities to engage in a wide variety of gross and fine motor movements throughout the day. Doing so not only builds the circuits for executive functioning, but also gives students a large repertoire of mastered automatic movements they can perform without thinking, freeing up their attention for more creative thinking and problem-solving. After all, it’s difficult to create an award-winning poem or plan out your steps for your research project if your attention is focused on the actual movements of writing (or even typing).
Thankfully, there is one educator who understood the interrelationship of movement and cognition (though she wasn’t aware of the circuitry described above). Maria Montessori created classrooms that are essentially motor (and sensory) training grounds. She said:
When mental development is under discussion, there are many who say, “How does movement come into it? We are talking about the mind.” And when we think of intellectual activity, we always imagine people sitting still, motionless. But mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it. It is vital that educational theory and practice should become informed by this idea (pgs. 141-142).
From birth through adolescence, Montessori students of all ages are practicing and perfecting a huge variety of movements while learning content knowledge in mathematics, history, English, science, arts, etc. Movement in a Montessori environment is an integrated part of the method’s highly complex system. It is not used in order to help children learn as they sit. It’s how the children learn.
Maybe it’s how they should learn in conventional schools, too.
1. Diamond, A. (2000). Close interrelation of motor development and cognitive development and of the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex. Child Development, 71, 44-56. ; Koziol, L. F., & Budding, D. E. (2009). Subcortical structures and cognition: Implications for neuropsychological assessment. New York, NY: Springer; Koziol, L. F., Budding, D. E., & Chidekel, D. (2012). From movement to thought: executive function, embodied cognition, and the cerebellum. The Cerebellum, 11(2), 505-525.
2. Westendorp, M., Hartman, E., Houwen, S., Smith, J., & Visscher, C. (2011). The relationship between gross motor skills and academic achievement in children with learning disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 32(6), 2773-2779. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2011.05.032
3. Leonard, H. C., Bernardi, M., Hill, E. L., & Henry, L. A. (2015). Executive functioning, motor difficulties, and developmental coordination disorder. Developmental Neuropsychology, 40(4), 201-215. doi: 10.1080/87565641.2014.997933
4. Parvizi, J. (2009). Corticocentric myopia: Old bias in new cognitive sciences. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(8), 354-359. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2009.04.008
5. Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
6. Montessori, M. (1967). The absorbent mind (1st ed.). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.