Or, more succinctly, “How is this math?” There is an entire chapter in Math on the Move that answers this question in great detail, but here are some research-based articles, as well as bonus perspectives from mathematicians, that I hope will provide a strong rationale for you when explaining to others the benefits of whole-body math learning.
1. A recent study in Denmark has concluded “Math is learned best when children move…and it helps to use the whole body.”
Participation in math lessons focusing on integrating gross motor activity can positively contribute to mathematical achievements in preadolescent children. In normal math performers, gross motor enrichment led to larger improvements than fine motor enrichment and conventional teaching. Across all children gross motor enrichment resulted in greater mathematical achievement compared to fine motor enrichment. From a practical perspective, teachers and related personnel should consider integrating gross motor activity in learning activities relevant to the academic curriculum as a promising way to engage children and improve academic achievement.
This is great news but we need to keep our eye on what it means to do this in a meaningful way in the classroom!
2. Spatial Reasoning IS mathematics: “It is almost as if they are one and the same thing.”
Even though spatial reasoning includes the body (see information in #3, below), there has been little research on whole-body-based spatial reasoning. Nevertheless, spatial reasoning is a foundational skill for learning math and Math on the Move is, in part, about illustrating in great detail how we can harness and develop whole-body spatial reasoning during math time.
“The relation between spatial ability and mathematics is so well established that it no longer makes sense to ask whether they are related” (p. 206). Researchers have underlined that the link between spatial reasoning and math is so strong that it is “almost as if they are one and the same thing” (Dehaene, 1997, p. 125). Reﬂecting on the strength of this relationship, others have noted that “spatial instruction will have a two-for-one effect” that yields beneﬁts in mathematics as well as the spatial domain…”
A succinct document targeted to educators that explains the importance of spatial reasoning in mathematics and what it looks like when it’s integrated into math class in grades K-8.
Students need to be explicitly taught and given opportunities to practice using executive functions to organize, prioritize, compare, contrast, connect to prior knowledge, give new examples of a concept, participate in open-ended discussions, synthesize new learning into concise summaries, and symbolize new learning into new mental constructs, such as through the arts or writing across the curriculum.
Math is more than facts and being in control of your own body while focusing on a specific body-based task is an opportunity for students to develop Executive Function as well as apply and deepen their learning.
Creative opportunities — the arts, debate, general P.E., collaborative work, and inquiry — are sacrificed at the altar of more predigested facts to be passively memorized. These students have fewer opportunities to discover the connections between isolated facts and to build neural networks of concepts that are needed to transfer learning to applications beyond the contexts in which the information is learned and practiced … When you provide students with opportunities to apply learning, especially through authentic, personally meaningful activities with formative assessments and corrective feedback throughout a unit, facts move from rote memory to become consolidated into related memory bank, instead of being pruned away from disuse.
We conclude that children think and learn through their bodies. Our study suggests to educators that conventional images of knowledge as being static and abstract in nature need to be rethought so that it not only takes into account verbal and written languages and text but also recognizes the necessary ways in which children’s knowledge is embodied in and expressed through their bodies.
BONUS: Mathematicians can recognize the whole-body activity as “doing math”
“Its [the second part of[Math on the Move] that is the most mathematical, from my perspective as a pure mathematician. The dance moves within the tiny square space are an abstract mathematical idea that is explored in a mathematical way. We ask how the steps are the same or different from each other, identifying various properties that distinguish them. We investigate how these new objects can be combined and ordered and transformed. We try out terminology and notation to make our investigations more precise and to communicate both current state and how we got there. These are all the things we pure mathematicians do with all our functions, graphs, groups, spaces, rings and categories. The similarity of this to pure mathematical investigation is striking.”
— David Butler, University of Adelaide, Australia [Read full review]
“The movement activities described [by Malke] naturally link to the notions of transformational geometry and the subtle questions of sameness and difference that are explored. Enabling people to find the links between that physical understanding and the mathematical abstractions is a wonderful way to make mathematics open up. Overall this is a wonderful book on the power and importance of mathematical thinking to explore all sorts of surprising topics, and conversely the importance of physical movement and dance to explore mathematics.”
—Edmund Harriss, Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Arkansas [Read full review]
Malke Rosenfeld is a dance teaching artist, author, editor, math explorer, 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. Join Malke and other educators on Facebook as we build a growing community of practice around whole-body math learning.