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The Benefits of a Movement-Based Math Classroom

Through Dance Equations, I have developed a technique for teaching mathematics. However, Dance Equations is part of a broader teaching approach called the Movement-Based Classroom. This concept involves integrating movement, not just dance, into learning to enhance student engagement and comprehension.

While Learning Through the Arts was the initial inspiration for Dance Equations (explained in a previous blog), more recent influences include Rosenshine's 17 Principles of Effective Instruction and Building Thinking Classrooms. The research and development of Peter Liljedahl and Barak Rosenshine further solidified many elements I’ve integrated over the years. Elements such as the “varied diet” and a “desk-free or non-fronted” classroom have been key components of my approach.

I teach in a grade 2 classroom in Costa Rica, where I am in the classroom every day. Though I still travel and teach Dance Equations to teachers and students across various grade levels, I spend Monday to Friday with my grade 2 students. Part of my math instruction involves traditional methods, such as sitting, looking at a whiteboard, and answering questions. However, I am fortunate to work in a school that supports and allows me to utilize a movement-based classroom.

What Does That Mean?

A movement-based classroom is a flexible environment where learning happens outside of a desk. Although my classroom is relatively small, I maintain an open, moveable space with desks or tables that can easily be rearranged. I create activities that can take place in different locations, both inside and outside the classroom. Traditional teaching spaces can sometimes inhibit the dynamic nature of movement-based learning.

What Do I Need For A Movement-Based Classroom?

  • Flexible Space: Always have a location where movement can take place.

  • Defronted Room: Various whiteboards or workstations.

  • Mini-Whiteboards: Enable lessons to happen anywhere.

  • Music: Adds to the experience, defines time structures, and is imperative for dance and structured movement.

  • A Treasure Chest of Fun Games and Activities: Resources to draw on at any time.

  • Dancing Digits: My codified dance form for rapid body calculations, eliminating the need for pencils and paper when solving addition or subtraction problems.

What Are The Benefits of a Movement-Based Classroom?

  • Cognitive Function and Academic Performance "Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head" by Carla Hannaford (2005) emphasizes that physical movement is crucial for cognitive development and learning. Hannaford argues that engaging the body through movement enhances brain function, aids memory retention, and promotes overall learning efficiency. Integrating physical activity into educational practices can lead to improved academic performance and emotional well-being, supporting the idea that learning is a holistic process involving both the mind and the body.

  • Dance in Math Class: In "Brain-Compatible Dance Education," Anne Gilbert concludes that incorporating dance and movement into education significantly enhances cognitive function and learning. Dance stimulates multiple areas of the brain, fostering improved memory, problem-solving skills, and emotional intelligence. Gilbert advocates for dance as a powerful educational tool that promotes holistic learning by integrating physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Dance adds another layer to movement by incorporating emotional elements and storytelling, organizing movement more fully.

  • Fun and Engagement: One of the most immediate benefits of a movement-based classroom is the element of FUN! Adding movement, dance challenges, and games make learning enjoyable. When students are having fun, they are more engaged, motivated, and likely to participate actively. This positive atmosphere reduces anxiety, especially in subjects like math, and fosters a love for learning. The playful environment encourages creativity and collaboration, making the learning process more dynamic and memorable.

How to Get Started

Starting is simple and requires few resources. I typically begin a lesson more traditionally or with the Building Thinking Classroom approach, gathering students around the whiteboard. I ensure that my students have an introductory understanding of the concepts we’ll be exploring. They also work in their math notebooks, fulfilling a requirement of my school. Once these foundational tasks are completed, I ask students to leave their desks and paper aside. Having done the work didactically, they apply their knowledge to “physical math problems” such as creating an angle dance, developing routines based on specific ratios, line functions, or even a multiplication line dance. Activities can include skip-counting while skipping, math relays, a movement-based version of Jeopardy, and a game called 50 Squares (definitely a classroom favorite). In some cases, I use movement first, especially when teaching concepts such as angles, symmetry, skip-counting, or anything with a direct correlation to space, shape, and counting.

Possible Challenges

  • School Regulations: While most schools are open to new ideas that can raise student appreciation and reduce anxiety over math, integrating movement-based methods might pose challenges if students are required to work on computers extensively. Parents may also have concerns if they believe it won’t help students achieve their educational goals, especially at the high school level, though this is often far from the truth. High school students need movement the most. And as you’ll read below, movement-based learning has many benefits.

  • Physical Limitations: Students with physical limitations might find movement challenging, but there are always ways to incorporate it. I’ve taught Dance Equations to blind students and those in wheelchairs—each finding their unique way to participate. These students often enjoy the movement-based classroom even more, as it offers them opportunities to express themselves through improvisational and creative movement.

A Positive and Holistic Teaching Approach

  • Survey Findings: 82% of U.S. students in grades 7-10 are fearful of math, significantly affecting their confidence and enthusiasm toward the subject. Only 20% feel confident about their math abilities (Business Wire).

  • Decline in Proficiency: A sharp decline in math proficiency from grade 7 to grade 9, with only about a quarter of 9th graders demonstrating proficiency in basic math concepts compared to more than half of 7th graders (Business Wire).

  • High School Dropout Rate: The U.S. dropout rate was 5.3% in 2020, with math being a significant factor contributing to students leaving school early (USAFacts). Struggles with math can lead to increased dropout rates, especially in high-poverty areas.

  • Negative Perceptions: The transition from grade 7 to grade 8 sees a rise in negative perceptions towards math among girls, increasing by 11%. For boys, negative perceptions increase by 20% as they move from grade 8 to grade 9 (Business Wire).

  • Broader Implications: Fear of math and declining proficiency affect preparedness for STEM careers, vital for the future workforce (Business Wire).

Movement provides a more positive classroom experience. My students regularly ask to play math games without my prompts, and they often stand away from their desks to incorporate Dancing Digits. This method gives them accessible solutions for solving difficult questions without a calculator while enhancing their mental math skills. I have logic games readily available, dance challenges, and alternative workspaces, all of which contribute to a dynamic and engaging learning environment.

Additional Benefits and Research in Support of a Movement-Based Classroom

  • Research on Kinesthetic Learning: Jensen, E. (2000). "Brain-Based Learning: The New Science of Teaching and Training." Highlights the importance of physical activity in learning.

  • Physical Activity and Cognitive Function: Ratey, J. J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain." Explains how exercise improves cognitive function.

  • Implementing Movement in the Classroom: Donnelly, J. E., & Lambourne, K. (2011). "Classroom-based physical activity, cognition, and academic achievement." Preventive Medicine, 52(Suppl 1), S36-S42. Provides evidence on the positive impact of movement-based activities on academic performance.

  • Case Studies and Practical Applications: Beaudoin, C. (2013). "Moving Bodies, Building Minds: Foster Preschoolers' Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Through Movement." Offers practical examples and case studies of movement-based learning in action.

If you would like to learn more about Dance Equations and the Movement-Based Classroom, join my program. Teachers in my program receive one-on-one coaching support and custom-made activities and resources. I am available to help with lesson planning and to enhance your teaching style, creating a fun and engaging classroom in addition to the tools you already have. My goal is to energize, not change, the teacher you are. Learn more about my subscriptions here.


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