What does it look and sound like when kids use their whole bodies during a math lesson? What happens prior to, during, and after the activity? Luckily Deb Torrance and Lana Pavolova have provided us with some stellar documentation so we can get a closer look at what happens when we give kids a mathematical challenge to explore with their whole bodies.
Let’s start with this video in which children work collaboratively to explore a body scale 25-cell ladder-like structure in pursuit of proving how they know they’ve found its center. Although teams may solve the initial challenge rather quickly, the core mathematical experience is in using space, structure, and their bodies as tools for making sense of the challenge as they work to prove that they have found the right location.
These are first graders; Deb Torrance, their wellness teacher, and their classroom teacher have teamed up to run the lesson.
What do you notice about what the children are doing?
Here is the first key aspect of a moving math activity — it moves, but in a very focused manner and it also inspires on-topic conversations. Deb reported that “During four minutes of ‘free explore’ time with the ladders I was amazed at the different ways children were attempting to cross the structure! As the wellness teacher, it always excites me to see students moving and they were certainly doing that; hopping patterns, cartwheels, keeping hands in boxes, crawling… Students were then pulled to the center of the gym to discuss their thoughts and ideas about the ladders. The math vocabulary that was already being discussed [with peers in the context of the physical exploration] was amazing (symmetrical, middle. center, odd/even…).”
The role of the adults during the exploration phase of a moving math lesson is to keep tabs on the activity and check in occasionally with the learners about what they’re thinking or wondering. Teachers also play a role when it’s time for teams share out to the whole class; in this lesson the sharing would be focused on the strategies teams used and how they knew they had found the center of the space.
Lana Pavlova did the same Proving Center lesson with a group of kindergarten students and an 11-cell ladder. She reports that “proving was where the fun started. Many students could find the middle and count five squares on each side but weren’t sure how to explain why five and five was the middle but four and six squares was not. So, a lot of conversations revolved around trying to prove it and showing with their bodies what’s going on.”
Although the kindergarten kids were in groups, they mostly worked individually. Some of their reasoning included “because five is the same as five”, “because these two sides are equal”, “because it is exactly the half”. Some students were convinced that the middle was on the line, so they counted both lines and squares; if you stand in the middle “there will be six lines on each side”. One student said that “not all numbers have the middle, six doesn’t. One has the middle and it’s one.”
When the kindergarten students went back to their classroom they used whiteboards to explain what they did during the moving portion of the lesson. Lana says, “The physical activity helped [most of] them to remember that there were five squares on each side. One student drew a “9 frame” and wrote the number five on each side. As he was explaining it to me, he noticed he had counted it incorrectly and went back to change his number to four on each side. He shared how he was in the middle because there was the “same on both sides.”
Lana’s final thoughts after running this lesson get right to the core of what what #movingmath is and can do. “I was very impressed by the kids’ reasoning. I also want to highlight how important the initial ‘explore’ stage is; the movement IS the reasoning tool.”
No math concept can be understood completely in one representation or modality. Similarly, not all math can be explored with the body. Whole-body math may be a novel approach but it’s also clear that it can be a powerful tool for both learners and teachers.
You can find the Proving Center lesson plan as well as three other moving math lessons for K-12 learners here. When you try it out please consider sharing a picture, video, or blog post to Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #movingmath.
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 also delights in creating rich environments for math art making in which children and adults can explore, make, play, and talk math based on their own questions and inclinations.