How Does Movement Affect Learning and Cognition

—Kevin Clark, Head of School

If you are the parent of a child who attends a Montessori school, a great book for you to read would be Montessori: The Science behind the Genius, by Angeline Lillard. In addition to an excellent overview of the history of education, Lillard covers eight of the tenets of Montessori education, and she presents a review of the literature on each one. For example, most Montessori parents know that their children have a greater ability to move about the classroom in their Montessori school than they might in a more traditional school, but many underestimate the link between this ability to move and successful learning.

Lillard starts her chapter on Movement and Cognition with a quotation from Dr. Montessori: "One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions… Mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it. It is vital that educational theory and practice should become informed by this idea."

Movement is evident in every Montessori classroom: Toddlers engage in block work and practical life activities; children in the Children's House get works from and return them to shelves; Elementary children give each other grammar directions that they actively follow; Middle Schoolers discuss angles and measurements as they build a boat. This can stand in contrast to learning environments in which children are seated at desks, receive information from teachers, learn math without tactile materials, and have their body movements limited (just when they most need to move!). This latter approach to education, more widely found in most schools, is based on Behaviorism and never quite varied from its roots in the Industrial Revolution. Just think of the similarities between the average school and the average factory; for example, bells signaling the end of class and the end of a work day.

Brain/education research has demonstrated great support for an active classroom. For example, infants are more interested in objects that they need to reach for than objects that are handed to them. Monkeys, people (and babies) all fire more neurons when objects are nearly within reach than when they are in their hands. Researchers gave babies Velcro mittens and found that their brain activities increased with their newfound ability to pull in graspable objects. This ability increased their visual attention, propensity to reach, tendency to mouth, and ability to attribute goals to others earlier.

The movement of crawling is linked to advances in physical and social domains. It facilitates the perception of distance, one's body awareness, spatial layout, and pointing. Mobile babies find objects more easily, they exhibit fear responses appropriately, and they follow gazes more than immobile babies. Infants whose movements generate an action engage in the movement more.

The implementation of this research can be seen in Montessori classrooms and homes when movement is encouraged through the use of mobiles, rattles, bells, and floor beds, and "tummy time." Montessori schools and homes capitalize on children's ability to move by providing small tables and chairs that are lightweight. Montessori schools and homes minimize the use of things that restrict movement such as strollers, infant swings, cribs, and playpens.

Dr. Montessori also said, "Employ the body in the service of the mind to fulfill a meaningful goal." To this end, Montessori schools educate children's movements to be geared to a purpose. They develop children's ability to concentrate on a task. They help children learn to carry out a series of steps in sequence; and they help children to care for the environment.

Montessori: The Science behind the Genius includes interesting research on many areas of learning and how they relate to Montessori education. On movement and cognition alone, there is additional research on: Movement and Judgment; Movement and Memory; and Movement and Social Cognitive Processing.

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