Learning without a Body

Lunch time at my daughter’s small school means children are free to move around both inside and outside of the school within boundaries determined by their grade level. Often, lunch time is not just for eating (as evidenced by half-eaten sandwiches in the lunch box at the end of the day).  Lunch is for making up skits, finding interesting properties in the rocks you are pounding, for having arguments and making up, for exploring the narrow (but long) strip of trees that line one side of the school’s property, called ‘the woods’, and for creating clubs.  At a school with a no-exclusion rule, a club can be pretty much any combination of kids at any one time.

One day, when my daughter was in third grade, she told me her club had made a fort in the woods. At first glance it looked rather like a wall.  A very well constructed, sturdy wall, a wall built with a lot of thought and insight. There is a base of bricks and concrete and then a layer of sticks. There was also a latch (a piece of wire) which is lifted by the “door” (a stick), “Although we don’t usually go in this way because it’s not sturdy,” she told me, “we usually just go in over the low wall.”

Hearing about and seeing this fort I immediately thought about the article Ophelia’s Fort by fourth grade teacher and artist David Rufo which I edited for the Teaching Artist Journal’s online writing community ALT/space. In it he writes:

“During our conversations it became evident that Ophelia was focused on making for herself a “special place” rather than a special structure with four walls, a roof, and a door. As David Sobel emphasized in his book Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood: ‘Through making special places, children are experiencing themselves as shapers and makers of small worlds. This experience contributes to making them active shapers of the world in their adult lives.'”

 In sharing this story about my daughter’s lunchtime adventures, I am aware that it is not about math learning, per se, but it does relate to why I wrote a book about the whole-body math learning. In past writings I have focused very closely in on the specifics of the Math in Your Feet program; the new book was a chance for me to step back and look at the broader issues involved in making math and dance at the same time.

One of the ideas that came into view as I zoomed out during the book writing is the necessity of agency in learning. It is clear that issues of learner agency begin with the body.  And, when thinking about using dance or movement as a partner in learning we must start by identifying how the body has historically been employed during school hours.  That is to say, how the body has not been employed (bolding emphasis mine):

“The embodied experience of traditional schooling is often, as educational philosopher John Dewey might suggest, an anaesthetic experience, devoid of any heightened sensory experience or perception. In school, our bodies are still, serving primarily a utilitarian function.  We learn to from an early age not to squirm or leave our desk chairs in classrooms. We learn to sit up straight, raise our hands to be called upon, or walk single file to lunch.  By the time we reach high school our bodies are often reserved for gym class…or for moving from one class to another. In a sense, we educate from the neck up, leaving the rest of the body to act largely as physical support rather than as actively involved in our quest for knowledge, thinking, and understanding … implicated in this analysis is the importance of agency in relation to activity. Providing curricular opportunities that are experience-based, that encourage the use of the body and engage the senses in learning could create a different kind of [structure] for schooling if learners are encouraged to explore connections between learning, self and the broader social and cultural frameworks of meaning in which they are situated.” 

Source: Powell, K. The apprenticeship of embodied knowledge in a taiko drumming ensemble. In L. Bresler (Ed.), Knowing bodies, moving minds: Embodied knowledge in education (pp. 183-195). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Klewar Press.

The body is not simply a vehicle toward realizing the perceived pinnacle of abstracted knowledge housed in the mind.  The body is where learning originates. Living in a body is also the way children learn personal agency as they make decisions about how their bodies will move and act and how that power can influence and shape their world. And, in the process, learning that there are obvious consequences and responses in relation to their actions. This is literally and viscerally democracy in action.

Perhaps most importantly, despite the incredible change of pace and screen-focused activity in modern life, children still have brains that learn best by moving and pulling sensory input in through all parts of the body.  Hundreds of years of thoughtful analysis, research, and observation of children learning and growing has shown this to be true and yet the body is still being marginalized in favor of  “knowledge” as something gold and shiny to be won and placed on a high shelf for viewing, far removed from any experience and personal understanding.

What is a body without agency?  What is learning without a body? Thinking about these questions is the important first step in understanding the inherent worth of children using their bodies to make sense of mathematics.

This is slightly altered reposting of the 2013 version of the same title on the authors former blog The Map is Not the Territory.


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)

One thought on “Learning without a Body

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

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