Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Let’s Get Physical!

EEF blog: Let’s Get Physical!

Grace Coker
Grace Coker
Content Specialist for Maths

Grace Coker is the EEF’s Content Specialist for Mathematics. In this blog, she explores the cognitive science approach of embodied learning.

Blog •2 minutes •

One of the most important questions educational research can ask is how children learn. If we know how they process and retain information, we can adapt our approach to teaching accordingly.

Developing our understanding of learning, memory, and how to carefully consider pupils’ cognitive load, and then applying this understanding in the classroom, has the potential to improve outcomes for all children.

Evidence box

One approach explored in the EEF’s Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom evidence review is embodied learning. This refers to strategies that engage and make use of movement and the body to support effective learning.

It is thought that by designing tasks and activities that appeal to young pupils in a multisensory way, teachers may be able to make new information more easily comprehensible and memorable. Whilst the evidence around embodied learning is limited, some studies do show promise that approaches involving the body in physical enactment can improve pupil learning in mathematics.

Name of the game

Recommendation 3 of EEF’s ​‘Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1’ guidance report states there is some evidence that physical whole-body movement and gestures may support the learning of mathematics. For example, this could include young children moving along a physical number line, or jumping and clapping while counting.

  • Clapping games while counting can be a way of helping children to see patterns. For example, when we say an odd number, we clap our hands together. When we say an even number, we clap our partner’s hands.
  • Track games played on a large-scale can be a way of helping children to develop numeral identification skills, counting skills, numerical magnitude comparison as well as number line estimation.
  • Counting games that incorporate gesturing at the end of the count can support children’s understanding of cardinality.

Mathematical games like these, which incorporate embodying knowledge through action, may help to balance cognitive load and support higher-quality mental representations. In turn, this can lead to better knowledge acquisition and retention for young children learning mathematics.

Move your body

The studies on embodied cognition and physical approaches were found through general searches of cognitive science rather than specific searches of the approaches. This means that this evidence may not be a comprehensive summary of the approach.

Some actions and approaches for using embodied learning and physical activity in the classroom include gesturing, movement, tracing, enacting, and guided play. Purposeful and carefully planned movement – like gesturing and clapping – can highlight specific qualities of mathematical concepts we want pupils to understand.

You could take the opportunity of using playground equipment in your maths lessons. For instance, turn a spinner to see what steps children need to count in – 2s, 5s or 10s. Children then jump on a large 100 number square in those multiples up to a particular number. The physical movement may benefit children to see patterns of the multiples and thereby consolidate their understanding.

Teachers can explore opportunities for getting physical’ with early maths through Purposeful, Playful Practice.’