Ways to Get Students Moving in Class

In the article “Why So Many Kids Can’t Sit Still in Class”, educator Valerie Strauss shares how the increasing limitations on physical activity for kids is affecting their ability to focus and succeed in class. Unlike other articles focusing on this issue, Strauss does not speak about video games and other forms of ‘screen time’ as a central cause. Instead, Strauss blames the limited time kids are given to play and the amount of liability/safety concerns held by the parents of this generation. The situation is such that not only are kids spending less time outside, they are extremely limited in what kind of play they are allowed to engage in. Strauss concludes that extended, less restricted physical activity is essential for increasing student focus and awareness in the classroom.

Though many teachers, and administrators, agree with Strauss’s sentiments, giving students this type of physical freedom poses a significant challenge. However, maybe the challenge should be approached in another way. Where we may not be able to provide more ‘play’ time or completely change the way students are taught in a classroom, we can still place a greater focus on integrating movement in our lessons. This post explores different ways, big and small, to integrate movement in the classroom.

Small Movements

Here are some ways to encourage movement without having ‘motion’ as an integral part of the lesson. Most of these are on an individual basis and all can easily be incorporated as standard classroom procedures/expectations.

Encourage Productive Fidgeting:

In the aforementioned article, fidgeting is cast in a negative light and is named as a symptom of kids not getting enough physical activity. Where I agree that fidgeting is a way to try and ‘wake up’ the brain, I don’t believe that fidgeting itself is bad. In fact, studies have shown that for many people, fidgeting is a sign of an active brain. The key for teachers dealing with fidgety students is to find ways to help students learn to focus those impulses in ways that are not distracting to themselves and peers.

Balloons filled with rice or sand make good, cheap fidgets
Balloons filled with rice or sand make good, cheap fidgets

What separates negative fidgeting from productive fidgeting is finding ways for the fidgeting to occur without becoming a distraction to others and/or becoming a fixation for the fidgety student. Achieving productive fidgeting often requires the use of an object commonly referred to as “fidgets”. Students who use fidgets often have one or two that they prefer, but it is good to have many different kinds available to maintain interest. Here are some things to consider when finding a good fidget:

-Small, easy to hold

-Has only one or two colors (Could have more but should be limited)

-Does not contain extremely bright (neon) colors or lights

-Does not make noise when used (Keep in mind students might tap the object against their chair or desk)

-Does not encourage large movements (i.e. A ball might encourage students to play catch with themselves or others)

-Is texturally appealing to the student(s) using it (This is on an individual basis but in general, try to acquire fidgets with different textures so you are able to switch it up on occasion and keep the student interested)

Fidgets might not work for all students but if they are successful, a student should be able to stay engaged and complete the work as normal despite the presence of the fidget.

Give Students the Option to Stand:

This is a simple yet effective way to allow students to move more freely. For students who have trouble sitting still for long periods of time, this is a good way to relieve the restrictive feeling they may get at a desk. Standing allows for a greater range of motion and can help students stay more attentive as they are no longer in a physically restive state.

Tall tables or desks like this provide good standing spaces/leg swinging places for fidgety students
Tall tables or desks like this provide good standing spaces/leg swinging places for fidgety students

Standing during instruction can be incorporated in many different ways and can be successful so long as the expectations for it are clear and enforced. If an individual student needs to stand frequently, they should be situated in a perimeter or back desk to avoid blocking the view of others. For students who might just get sleepy or fidgety in a given moment, there can be designated spots in the room where they can stand if they are not sitting in at a desk that allows them to do so. The teacher can even make use of tall countertops or specialized tall desks. For younger students, the teacher can have the entire class stand during certain parts of instruction, enforcing classroom expectations in the same way they would when the students are seated.

Have an ‘Open Room’ During Independent Work Time:

For this method, students are given free range of the classroom during individual and/or group work time. When starting work, students find a place in the room they would like to work in and can occupy that space in whatever manner they find most comfortable/productive (i.e. standing, sitting cross legged, laying down, etc.). It is up to the teacher to decide if there will be places in the room that are off limits and/or if there are limitations in how students can occupy their space.If a student/group is being unproductive or distracting, they are required to return to their seats.

Like these students in reading workshop, students can use different spaces of the room to work.

This method is beneficial because it allows students to find a ‘fresh’ spot in the room where they can have renewed focus and it encourages them to be in the awkward positions that promote the core development Strauss argues many students are lacking. Like with standing, students also have a broader range of non-distracting motions they can do, keeping their minds awake and engaged. Despite these benefits, this method might not be suitable for younger grades and may not be productive in all classrooms. Teachers should carefully assess if this method is right for them.

Use a Yoga Ball Chair:

Yoga balls are a simple yet effective way to keep students’ bodies engaged as they learn. I have seem them used a lot in special education rooms and they seem to slowly be making their way into regular classrooms as well. Yoga balls are great for core development and allow students to shift around in ways normal chairs don’t. They can be somewhat distracting at first but the novelty quickly wears off. Overall, they are quite useful tools, especially for some of the more fidgety students.

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Have a Moving Discussion Object:

This is common in many classrooms and is easy to integrate. During class discussion or even just when calling on students, the teacher (or a peer) gives the speaker an object that signifies it is their turn to speak. Many times the object is gently tossed to the speaker, requiring them to catch it. However, one adaptation is to have students walk the object over to the next speaker. I have found that when I use this method, my students are generally more engaged and alert as they want a turn to ‘catch’ the object. Overall, this is a good way to ‘wake students up’ and get them physically engaged in a lesson without creating too much activity in the room.

What is essential to making this work is, as always, having clear expectations for using the object and using a proper object for the class. The object should be relatively soft with no sharp edges so it can be easily and safely transferred from one person to another (keep in mind you will have some ‘chuckers’ in your room). The object should be small enough that it could be held at a desk for extended periods of time without being in the way but not so small that it becomes difficult for people to catch. Avoid objects that make noise or bounce.

Large Movements

Here are some ways to integrate movement into your lessons. These methods require students to shift around the classroom and actively engage with class material.

Have ‘Stations’ Around the Room:

I have seen stations used a lot at the elementary level but they seem to slowly disappear as students get older. Stations not only help break up and organize tasks, they are also a good way to keep students moving. Relocating to a different spot in the room also helps refresh and reinvigorate the brain.

Take advantage of transition times and classroom space

To go above and beyond to help students move, the teacher can encourage students to take one lap around the room or stretch before going to their next station. For younger students, requiring a certain movement (i.e. skipping or hopping) to get to the next station can make the process more fun and enhance the benefits of the passing time.

Have Students Physically Represent Information:

This can be done in many ways and so it is a harder method to explain. However, the basic point of this method is to take some kind of data and have students use their position in the room to represent it. I have found this method to be extremely effective as it gets students more engaged in the topic and it gets students out of their seats in a prolonged and productive way.

One example you may be familiar with is an activity where students have to line up in order of birth date. Sometimes an instructor might throw in an extra challenge like not allowing the students to speak. I have seen a math teacher twist this a little by assigning students a number or mathematical symbol and making them form a line with a group of their peers in order to form an accurate algorithm.

Another example I have used is having students express their opinions by moving to certain locations in the room. I had signs with numbers up around the classroom. During the activity, whenever I asked for students to form an opinion, I assigned different points of view to each number. Students moved to the number that best represented their point of view or to the middle if they had a different idea to share. Students would then discuss with the peers at their number and prepare to defend their opinion during the classwide discussion. There are many more ways to apply this method and it can be easily integrated into any classroom.

Have Students Act Out the Material:

This one can be a little more difficult for the more technical subjects like math and science, but it is still possible if you are creative. As the title suggests, acting out the material has students creating and performing some type of skit that explains, represents, or brings to life concepts and/or materials being learned in class. This method is used a lot in English classes where the teacher might have students act out a scene from a book or play they are reading.

Students re-enacting a medieval battle
Students re-enacting a medieval battle

This method is great to use because it has students moving for prolonged periods of time and gives them more freedom in how they move as well. Additionally, this method encourages creativity and can be silly and fun while giving students the opportunity to approach the material in a different way.

Information Scavenger Hunt / Jigsaw Activities:

Scavenger hunts are a fun way to have students learn new information and move around the room/school garden. Like stations, clues and activities can be placed around the room for students to find and complete. This allows students to move around the room as they try to gather all of the clues/information they need to ‘win’. To make things a little more interesting, different task can require students to find the next clue using a certain movement (i.e. crab walk/crawl to the next clue).

Students on a garden scavenger hunt
Students on a garden scavenger hunt

In a similar way, teachers can engage students in a jigsaw activity that requires students to move around the room. Rather than have students presenting their findings while their peers take notes, students display their work in given places of the room and navigate around the room to find the necessary information. This is a good way to hold students accountable for their work while promoting movement around the classroom.

How do you get students moving in your class? Share in the comments below!


3 thoughts on “Ways to Get Students Moving in Class

  1. Thought I’d be a grammar freak and let you know that it should say “topics AFFECTING teachers” instead of “topics effecting teachers” as the title of the article


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