Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum: Part 2

Thinking about Kinesthetic Learning so We Can Use It for Our Students

This is the second part of my reflecting on Susan Griss’ book, Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum.   Griss writes about teachers often responding to her ideas about kinesthetic learning with two reactions – first, that it’s an exciting and great idea, and then “How in the world do you do that?” Griss makes great strides in finding ways to explain some practical ways teachers can make kinesthetic learning work, and ways to think about kinesthetic learning so that teachers can create their own kinesthetic lessons to meet the needs of their particular students and curriculum. This post will reflect on points from the rest of her book that I found especially significant, from my perspective as a grade three classroom teacher who is both very interested in integrating kinesthetic learning in my classroom, and yet, also cautious about wisely using the limited time and resources I have to help my students reach all their required curriculum goals… I’m hoping to find some middle ground that will bring good learning to my students!

3 pathways cut

“Muscles to Brain: 3 Pathways”—Building our Teacher Imaginations for Kinesthetic Learning!

The two responses Griss describes teachers having to her ideas of kinesthetic learning – both positive interest and the sense that we have no idea how to even start teaching this way – are understandable, I think, as it can be difficult for us to imagine what resources kinesthetic learning offers to our lessons, and how to start thinking about using them.  I myself have experienced this same “frozen interest” in kinesthetic learning for years… and even though reading some of her descriptions of kinesthetic elements like time and space feels like remembering old friends from my time as a dance major in college, Griss’ work has helped me finally start to think with clarity about finding connections to the curriculum for my own students… to start to develop my imagination for kinesthetic learning and see the possibilities that are available to help students learn.

As a response to the question, “how do you do it?” Griss points to three “points of access,” to help us develop our imagination for kinesthetic ways to teach our curriculum: “(1) the possibility for creative interpretation; (2) kinesthetic elements, for instance, motion, time, space, shape; (3) authentic dance forms” (p.15).  She uses a metaphor of “three pathways” from muscles to brain.  The clarity she brings to this chapter can give us a toe-hold in starting to imagine how a kinesthetic lesson could actually be a pathway to our curriculum.  Griss gives detailed descriptions and lots of ideas for how each element can help us access learning through kinesthetic lessons.

One Pathway: Creative Interpretation

Offering an easy-to-imagine idea for an activity, Griss describes how teachers can tell or read students a story, as the students move, interpreting the story through movement. How to choose a story?  She recommends stories that include some emotion or drama, and she encourages us, “Trust your intuition.  If you can imagine your students acting out a situation without having to use words, you probably have an appropriate lesson” (p. 15). She encourages us to “have everyone do everything,” rather than choose different children for different parts, and points out that activities like this can make ideas like “cause and effect” or “main idea” easier to understand.

Creative Interpretation

I imagine this as a creative movement activity, one that is very focused on a particular lesson objective.  It encourages students to move as they listen, as a way of making sense and internalizing what they hear.

It also makes me wonder about a kinesthetic version of “visual notetaking,” in which images work with words to help the note-taker to digest and synthesize information as they listen.  (The YouTube video which introduced me to visual note taking can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY9KdRfNN9w).  Possible applications include stories (Griss mentions Swimmy), historical situations and poetry, to name a few.

 Another Pathway: Kinesthetic Elements: Motion, Time, Shape and Space

Kinesthetic Elements


One pathway uses what Griss calls “kinesthetic elements” to correlate to lesson concepts.  Kinesthetic elements are Motion, Time, Shape and Space.  To access the pathway of kinesthetic elements, we need to think about how these elements can reflect curriculum concepts.  For example, are there motion words in a lesson concept?  Science ideas such as “attract” and “repel” are motion words, as is the idea of traveling in a story, a history lesson, or food traveling through the body’s digestive system.  These connections can help us think of ways for students to experience and show with their bodies how these forces and movements function, interact or change.   Griss uses an example of a line of students “bumping shoulders [to] create the rarefaction and compression of a sound wave” (p. 5).


Griss elaborates on the idea of “time;” she writes, “Time not only involves the speed at which something happens, it can also involve duration (lasting through time), transformation (changing through time) or sequence (ordering in time).”  She continues, “The cycle of plant growth from seed to seed, the water cycle, the metamorphosis of a butterfly, the cycle of seasons, or math patterns can all be taught kinesthetically” (p. 23).   I would add that the changes in a character from the beginning to the end of a story could be taught this way.  Griss makes an exciting connection, pointing to rhythm as another view of time.  She describes how students could experience fractions as movements that take half as long, or one-fourth as long, as another movement.  She suggests that “”8 runs (8 eighths) take the same time as 4 skips (4 quarters) or 2 body swings (2 halves)” (p. 23).  Griss offers a lesson plan for Multiplying Through Movement.

Space and Shape

Many teachers start out by discovering connections between curriculum and the kinesthetic elements of space and shape.  Such connections are similar to those made by Jean Blaydes in the DVD, Making Learning a Moving Experience.   “Space refers to three-dimensional space (height-width-depth), to paths created traveling through space, and to the space between objects” (p.25).  By having our children move in space, we can help them experience physical and directional concepts, such as “large, small, front, back, under, over, through, spiral” (p. 25).  Griss also suggests kinesthetic learning to help students understand the different between rotation and revolution, relationships of planets in the solar system, the density of gradations of rock (she points to sand, silt, clay and gravel), as well as arrays for understanding multiplication and division.

While connecting shape to art and design, such as with concepts of symmetry, Griss also notes many other academic connections to body shapes. Students can use their whole bodies to “walk through sentences” and make appropriate punctuations marks with different shapes. (You can see an example of this in Blaydes’ video).  It can be a way to drill long and short vowel sounds (“make a long/tall shape when you hear a long vowel sound, and make a short/low shape when you hear a short vowel”) (p. 25).  Griss describes more ways to use shapes in lessons, including directing students’ focus at the beginning of lessons, or creating shape “tableaux” – a sculpture of “still, posed bodies,” to communicate characters’ feelings or changes in a story, or “in a series to show states of transition within a cycle.” Griss offers a plan for a Conflict Resolution lesson using shape tableaux to represent various conflict scenarios, and then discussing ways people involved might solve the conflicts.

Authentic Dance Forms:

Griss also mentions authentic dance forms, which usually involve inviting a guest artist to come teach a dance form that relates to the curriculum.  Our school’s grade 3 curriculum, for example,  involves a unit on “Now and Then,” which involves looking at the history of our city and our area over time.  Meaningful connections might be learning a colonial dance, such as the Virginia Reel, as well as a Wabanaki dance, as the students are in the second photo below.

Management: Making it Work:

Susan Griss’ Minds in Motion is a rich and well-developed resource, and, despite my enthusiasm, there is much more in her book than I’m able to summarize here.  Among the other important tools Griss offers in her chapters, she helps teachers see the structures we can put in place to make kinesthetic lessons work: clearly defining the space for the lesson, using our classroom management skills to keep control of the lesson, and clearly structuring the time and format of the lesson.  She also touches on ways we can use movement for classroom management, which might sound as simple as, “Everyone with laces on their shoes, tiptoe to the rug.”

 Structuring the Lesson

Using Movement for Assessment 

            Griss offers fascinating possibilities in her chapter on using movement for assessment.  She uses Bloom’s Taxonomy to describe how student can demonstrate knowledge, comprehension, analysis, application or synthesis through various movement tasks.  Griss also makes a particularly important point: for an assessment to be valid, students need to be familiar and fluent with language of the assessment.  If my students aren’t familiar and fluent with movement as a medium for communication, I can’t just walk into the classroom tomorrow and ask them to “use body movement to demonstrate three encounters that a character had in a story.” They wouldn’t be successful, and it wouldn’t be an accurate representation of what they comprehend. To create this familiarity and fluency, teachers can start finding ways to integrate movement through the school day.  In my own classroom, I’m finding this integration surprisingly easy and beneficial.


What if I’m not a dancer or I don’t want to move?

            Susan Griss’ chapter for teachers who may not want to move holds resources for all teachers – including teachers who already move a lot.  She reminds us about maintaining control of the space and time used by the lesson.  This seems an important point to repeat, as perhaps some people might have the misconception that creative movement is more of an out-of-control free-for-all, when in reality it can be as structured, controlled and focused as you choose to make it, using your classroom management skills.  There are different elements to define and expectations to clarify (such as whether or not they move around the space, when to freeze), but as we try out lessons, we’ll become more and more confident in our already-present abilities to manage them.

Movement Research Cover

            One of the most profound teachers in my life, Robert Ellis Dunn, taught movement classes partly from a chair, in the years shortly before his death.  He used his words, his voice and his gestures to communicate ideas to us.  He had students demonstrate examples, and his insightful and specific observations of what he saw us doing encouraged us and gave words to our movement experiences.  Griss encourages teachers to use options for demonstrating, including having students demonstrate.  She urges teachers to use our own resources, including our voices, instruments (as simple as a drum, wooden sticks or hand clapping will work), our words, our observations and our gestures to help students understand what we want them to do and to learn.   She also points to the value of viewing dance – both through video and live performance.  And, as with any innovation in our teaching, she reminds us that the more we try kinesthetic learning with our students, the more comfortable we become, and the more success we find.

Not Every Teacher Wants

With her wise reminders to think carefully about our curriculum and learning goals for our students, her detailed descriptions of possibilities and multiple sample lesson plans, Griss offers a inspired and comprehensive guide for developing and using kinesthetic lessons with our students.

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