Reading helps kids learn faster if it is done in concert with exercise. That is the finding a British study that saw a group of schoolchildren running, jumping, and engaging in active movement while engaging with material from The Gruffalo, a bestselling children’s book about a buffalo grizzly bear hybrid (not a combination of Grover and Mark Ruffalo as one might hope). Roughhousing actually helped three and four-year-olds learn at twice the rate of the peers, a counterintuitive result.
“We didn’t really know what would happen when we integrated the storytelling and movement together as no one had really done this previously,” Michael Duncan, Professor in Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Coventry University and co-author of the study, told Fatherly.
Duncan and his team looked at 74 kids from three different preschools who made of three parts of the study. One cohort (27 children) engaged in storytelling activities only, another (25) took part in movement based activities only, and the third group (22) participated in a combination of the two. Each group was involved in 20-30 minute sessions of the assigned intervention, twice a week for six weeks. The combined group’s story discussions were complemented with jumping, leaping, hopping, sliding, galloping, sipping, throwing and catching based on different characters in the book, such as a mouse, owl, fox, snake and The Gruffalo. The rest of the kids either learned from sessions that focused only on storytelling, or just movement activities without reference to the story. Motor competence and language ability were assessed before and after the six-week experiment, and again eight weeks later.
When kids were exposed to both movement and storytelling, their cumulative scores for both motor competence and language ability increased by 10 points, compared to 6 points for the movement only group, and three for the storytelling only group. Likewise, the combined group’s language ability scores jumped by 13.6 points, versus 5 points for the movement only group, and 3.4 points for the storytelling only group.
“The increases were very striking so we think the combination of the two together is synergistic and complementary,” Duncan says. He suspects the main reason for this is that physical activity increases oxygen in the frontal lobe of the brain, which helps to enhance cognition. It’s also possible that the effect is due to “embodied cognition”–a process where sensorimotor experiences, like the ones in this study, strengthen cognition because those parts of the brain are so close to each other, Duncan explains.
After the eight-week follow-up period when the interventions stopped, the benefit ceased, which suggests that synthesized methods need to be maintained to have any real advantage. Though the sample size was small and only looked at 22 kids in the combined group, the findings build on existing research that shows a link between movement and learning, and make an additional case for getting physical in the classroom. However, Duncan notes that implementation may be more challenging than jumping jacks during story time.
“There is sometimes an assumption that motor competence just happens through play,” he says. “While play is important and can help develop some motor skills, structured sessions are needed to ensure that the fundamental movement and motor skills the children are developing are effective and executed properly.” Duncan hopes further research looking at why movement facilitates learning will help schools better incorporate this. In the meantime, if you want to teach your kids anything, don’t tell them to sit still.