“Children think and learn through their bodies”

NOTE: I was thrilled to be invited by Table Talk Math to write a short piece for their weekly newsletter, and they have graciously allowed me to cross post a slightly expanded version here. Check out their resources for supporting math talk at home around the dinner table or any time!

cosmo-heightWhen my daughter was six she was prone to spontaneous bursts of body-based mathematical exploration.  That summer we had two flower plants in our garden that she had nurtured from seed.  By mid-August they had refused to blossom but were still gaining height and had become a daily source of measurement.  She’d compare the plant to her own height, “The cosmo is taller than me!”  As we turned toward autumn she was ecstatic to pronounce, “It’s up to Papa’s chin now!”

That same summer we read the book Sir Circumference the first Round Table a number of times.  She developed a game where she would leap  toward her blow-up wading pool in what she called the “diameter jump.” I held my breath every time as she leaped, finger tips to toes stretched out in one long line to touch the front and back of the pool at the same time, literally flying, flopping almost on the other side of the pool.

straight-lineA year later she was still learning to ride a bike. I took her to the playground which had a big open basketball court. She talked herself through the process: “Okay, all I have to do is think like a straight line in geometry…” and rode back and forth across the basketball courts chanting her new her mantra.

“Think like a straight line, think like a straight line, think like a straight line in geometry.”

When she’d get to the end of the court, she’d get off the bike and turn it around.  Then she figured she could make the turn without getting off. “All I have to do when I get to the end is think like a circle….”


Perhaps you’ve also noticed your children or students using their bodies to measure, make size comparisons with other objects, or track growth.  Or maybe you’ve noticed them:

  • walking a pathway along the painted lines on a basketball court
  • crossing a tiled floor on the diagonal by stepping on all the corners, or
  • stepping deliberately over every other floor tile in the grocery store

What can we make of this kind of activity?

Children naturally use their bodies as “thinking tools” to explore and make sense of the world. Studies have emphasized the importance of self-produced movement in the development spatial reasoning which is strongly linked to robust mathematical thinking and problem solving. Both spatial thinking and embodied learning — non-verbal, body-based modes of knowing and reasoning — are especially relevant to the development of mathematical intuition and sense making.

You can support the development of sturdy spatial and math skills in children by:

  1. Having conversations. Use spatial and relational words in the context of talking about everyday activities: over, under, around, through, around, above, below, etc.
  2. Pay attention to how children are using their bodies to interact with the environment, especially in new spaces. The more you notice the more you’ll see (and enjoy) their body-based thinking!
  3. Watch their gestures as they talk about math ideas. Many studies have shown, including the one on which this post’s title is based, that gestures paired with speech can show you a lot about a child’s geometric and spatial knowledge for which they may not yet have words.
  4. Play around! During a visit from a VERY tall Uncle Arlen my six-year-old noticed that he was exactly the same length as the couch! They ended up measuring the sunroom in a hilarious series of units called “Arlens.” The room was almost exactly four Arlens long. They also noticed that one “Arlen” was equivalent to two “Isobel’s” and five lengths of our unamused cat Lucy!

Interested in learning more?

This article on the Mind/Shift blog titled Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn is an excellent overview of embodied learning.

For some succinct and helpful information about spatial reasoning and how to support and develop students’ spatial thinking in the classroom during math time download this free PDF.

Malke Rosenfeld is a dance teaching artist, author, and presenter whose interests focus on the learning that happens at the intersection of math and the moving body. She delights in creating rich environments in which children and adults can explore, make, play, and talk math based on their own questions and inclinations. Her new book is titled: Math on the Move: Engaging Students in Whole Body Learning (Heinemann 2016)


2 thoughts on ““Children think and learn through their bodies”

  1. Pingback: Math off the Page: Units & Part-Whole Relationships – Math on the Move

  2. Pingback: A Quick Example of Body-Based Cognition: Spinning – Math on the Move

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