When “The Movement IS the Reasoning Tool”


ch3p26What 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.

Learning Math by Ear: The Role of Language in a Moving Classroom


At first glance, this article about the value of reading aloud to older kids would not seem to connect to math learning. But, to me it does.  Here’s the piece that really stood out:

“The first reason to read aloud to older kids is to consider the fact that a child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until about the eighth grade,” said Trelease [a Boston-based journalist, who turned his passion for reading aloud to his children into The Read-Aloud Handbook in 1979], referring to a 1984 study performed by Dr. Thomas G. Sticht showing that kids can understand books that are too hard to decode themselves if they are read aloud. “You have to hear it before you can speak it, and you have to speak it before you can read it. Reading at this level happens through the ear.”

Did you catch that? “You have to hear it before you can speak it, and you have to speak it before you can read it.”

I made a similar point while working with teachers and teaching artists in Minnesota in 2013 when participants noticed how the math language was woven naturally and seamlessly into our dance work. This vocabulary development, I said, was initially an attempt to help kids pay closer attention to the details of what they were doing while they created their dance patterns. I noticed that they became much better creators when they had the right words to help them identify their movement choices.

recent brain study focused on how the motor cortex contributes to language comprehension:
“Comprehension of a word’s meaning involves not only the ‘classic’ language brain centres but also the cortical regions responsible for the control of body muscles, such as hand movements.”
To me this study explains part of why a “moving math” approach that includes a focus on math language used in context can open up new pathways for our learners [bolding emphasis mine]:

“An alternative is offered by an embodied or distributed view suggesting that the brain areas encoding the meaning of a word include both the areas specialised for representing linguistic information, such as the word’s acoustic form, but also those brain areas that are responsible for the control of the corresponding perception or action. On this account, in order to fully comprehend the meaning of the word ‘throw’, the brain needs to activate the cortical areas related to hand movement control. The representation of the word’s meaning is, therefore, ‘distributed’ across several brain areas, some of which reflect experiential or physical aspects of its meaning.”

 My take away from the study overview is this:

  1. Our whole bodies are just that: whole systems working in an fascinating and astoundingly connected ways.
  2. “Knowing” something, especially the ideas and concepts on the action side of math (transform, rotate, reflect, compose,  sequence, combine, etc) is strengthened by the partnership between mathematical language and physical experience.

In Math in Your Feet we start by moving to get a sense of the new (non-verbal) movement vocabulary in our bodies. At the same time we say together, as a group and out loud, the words that best match our movement. Sometimes we also pay attention to the words’  written forms on the board so all three modalities of the idea are clear to us.  When learners are more confident with their dancing they are asked to observe others’ work and choose the the specific  words that describe the attributes/properties of the moving patterns. There are over 40 video examples of this in action in Math on the Move.


In addition to being able to parse our patterns, we use tons of other math terminology while we choreograph in conversations with our teammates and in whole group discussions.  This approach allows learners to fully grasp the real meaning and application of these ideas which, ultimately, allows them to write and talk confidently about their experiences making math and dance at the same time. Teachers consistently notice an increase of ‘math talk’ in their classrooms when children get up to explore math ideas with their whole bodies. As in, “I couldn’t believe how much math vocabulary they were using!”


Math is a language but it’s not just about terminology, it’s about what those words MEAN.  To do this, learners need to play with mathematical ideas, notice and talk about patterns and structure, sort and compare, and share reasoning about and understanding of mathematical relationships.


As such, language, in partnership with the body is our tool for thinking mathematically when we are up out of our seats and moving during math time.  Ideally, this language is facilitated by an adult through conversation, play and exploration, all before bringing it to the page to explore the ideas in a different modes and contexts.

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.