Young adolescents undergo more rapid and
profound changes than at any other time in their
development (NMSA, 2010). Adolescence is a pivotal
stage for cognitive, social-emotional, and physical
development. Middle school educators understand
the developmental uniqueness of this age group and
seek to provide activities that fully engage the young
adolescent. One way to accomplish this is through
kinesthetic learning. We define kinesthetic learning
as an instructional strategy that connects physical
movement and social interaction with academic
content. Kinesthetic activities incorporate physical
exercise, stretching, and cross-body movements and
are specifically connected to subject matter. The goal
is to get students actively engaged and “learning by doing” as they investigate mathematics concepts
through physical movement.
The Importance of Physical Activity
According to the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services (2018), adolescence “is a critical
period for developing movement skills, learning
healthy habits, and establishing a firm foundation
for lifelong health and well-being” (p. 47). Regular
physical activity in children and adolescents
promotes health and fitness, and the beneficial
effects of exercise on learning are well documented.
Movement increases the heart rate and stimulates
brain function, which facilitates a child’s ability to
learn. The U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services specifically advocates physical activity for
brain health. They state that regular physical activity
“results in improved cognition including performance
on academic achievement tests, executive function,
processing speed, and memory” (p. 40) as well as a
reduced risk of depression. The cognitive benefits of
physical activity apply to all students, including those
with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity
Numerous studies support the conclusion that
physical activity has a positive influence on memory,
concentration, and classroom behavior. These studies
indicate a significant positive correlation between
fitness and standardized test scores in math.
Furthermore, students who are more physically fit
have fewer absences and fewer disciplinary referrals.
These findings remain statistically significant when
controlling for race, socioeconomic status, and gender.
There are many ways to actively engage students in
learning mathematics content. Students “learn by
doing” when they use their hands, arms, legs, and
bodies as tools for learning. We advocate the use of
purposeful movement that is directly connected to
the content being taught. This is very different than
asking students to recite multiplication tables while
doing jumping jacks. We argue that many students
have procedural knowledge but lack conceptual
Instead of asking students to memorize isolated facts
and algorithms, consider asking students to dramatize
mathematics concepts through motion. For example,
students can act out points on a Cartesian coordinate
system and walk through shifting and stretching
functions. A Twister mat can be used to introduce the
concept to younger students. Other kinesthetic activities might include acting out operations on a number
line; teaching translations, rotations, and reflections
by dancing the Electric Slide; and finding the mean,
median, and mode of a data set after constructing a
human graph. What follows are descriptions of three
kinesthetic activities that can be used to support and
extend specific mathematics concepts.
The Metric Handshake/Metric Salute
Many students in the U.S. struggle to associate
benchmarks to metric units of length. In order to
strengthen their knowledge, hands-on measuring is
beneficial. Estimating using familiar body measures
can assist with foundational understanding. For
example, for a young adolescent, the distance
between one shoulder bone and the length of the
other arm with fingers extended is about one meter.
The distance between the space from the thumb and
pinky is approximately one decimeter. The distance
across the tip of the pinky is approximately one
centimeter. The thickness of a fingernail is about
one millimeter. This leads to a fun, cool handshake
students can use to greet one another.
Listed here are step-by-step motions for practicing
four basic benchmark measures of length.
- While holding your right hand with fingers
extended to your left shoulder in a saluting
formation, call out “Salute.”
- Extend your right hand, palm down with fingers
straight, from the left shoulder position to fully
extended to the right. Say, “meter.”
- Move palm up and extend thumb and pinky finger
(pointer, tall man, and ring man fingers curled
down into palm). Say, “decimeter.”
- Hold the pinky in a vertical position while folding
in all other fingers. Call out, “centimeter.”
- Rotate the pinky a quarter turn to display the
thickness of the fingernail. Call out, “millimeter.”
- For additional cool factor and pizzazz, students
can join pinkies to finalize the metric signals in a
Angle exercises utilize the arms as the rays of an
angle. While everyone is standing, the leader calls
a type of angle while the others attempt to model
it. To model a right angle, for example, hold one arm
parallel to the floor in a horizontal direction and the
other in a vertical direction. To model an acute angle,
position the arms closer together with a narrow space
between them. Modeling an obtuse angle moves the
arms wider. Arms extended in opposite directions
represents a straight angle of 180°. To challenge
students and accelerate the pace, gradually increase
the call rate of the angle types. If space is limited, it
may be necessary to use fingers instead of arms to
demonstrate the angles.
Once the basic angle concepts are introduced,
prompt students to consider other measurements. If
a right angle is 90°, what is the measure of half that
angle? What type of angle is it? What if an angle is
exactly halfway between a right angle and a straight
angle? What type of angle is it? What is its measure?
Discuss that an acute angle is between 0° and 90°.
Discuss characteristics of obtuse angles and the
measures between 90° and 180°. Progress to calling
more complex angles using specific measurements. The students’ performance with the arm motions can
provide valuable formative assessment opportunities.
Angle exercises establish benchmark
measurements and set the foundation for students’
progression to measuring angles with a protractor.
We can then connect their arm motions with the
procedure for precision measuring with the protractor.
Help your students learn the characteristics of
quadrilaterals. Students often find it difficult to
classify quadrilaterals and distinguish between the
categories. Is a square a rectangle? Is a rectangle a
square? Are all rectangles squares? Are rectangles
parallelograms? Some rectangles are rhombi. All
squares are rhombi, rectangles, and parallelograms.
Quadrilateral stretches will give students the
opportunity to model quadrilaterals and explore
how small changes impact their similarities and
- With a little stretch of the imagination and the
arms, students can make air figures modeling
quadrilaterals. Start by demonstrating a common
quadrilateral. To model a square, hold both arms
up in front of your body and bent at the elbows.
With forearms straight up and equidistant, the
width represents congruent sides. Imagine the top
and bottom sides. With all sides equal and right
angles, the quadrilateral is a square.
- From this position, stretch the square by
sliding the forearms to the right (and/or left).
The quadrilateral changes to a rectangle (and
technically a parallelogram). Lean both forearms to
the right to transform the rectangle into a unique parallelogram. This demonstrates a lazy, leaning
parallelogram by holding both arms up bent at
the elbows, shoulder length apart, and tilted in
the same direction. The arms represent the width.
Imagine the top and bottom sides as the length.
In a parallelogram, opposite sides are congruent
and parallel. Keeping the forearms tilted, slide the
arms toward each other until the width aligns with
the height. The parallelogram has now achieved
another title, transforming into a rhombus.
Straighten the shape with vertical forearms again
and re-make the square.
- Vary the order of the quadrilateral stretches and
discuss how stretching and tilting, widening,
narrowing, transforms the shape and changes its
properties. Slide the forearms back together and
upright to re-create the square. Discuss the various
names of the figure. Tilt the square to create a
rhombus. Stretch the square to create a rectangle.
- Start with a leaning parallelogram. Slide the
forearms in to make a rhombus. Stand it upright
to make a square. Stretch the square to make
a rectangle. All squares are parallelograms,
rectangles, and rhombi. Some rhombi are squares,
but only when they have right angles.
- Be sure to emphasize that there are several ways
to model parallelograms. All square, rectangles,
and rhombi are classified as parallelograms.
- Create a trapezoid by collapsing one vertical side
of a square or rectangle. Identify the stretch as
modeling a “right trapezoid.” What figure can be
demonstrated by collapsing both vertical sides—an
- To challenge students and accelerate the pace,
gradually increase the call rate of the types of
Middle level educators value young adolescents
and understand the complex developmental needs
of this age group. Kinesthetic learning facilitates
students’ physical development by providing more
opportunities for movement; social development
with more interaction; emotional development with
more engagement; and cognitive development
with active learning. Kinesthetic strategies offer purposeful learning experiences and provide
alternatives to whole-class lecture. Students learn
by doing as they move their bodies to investigate
mathematics concepts. We all want our students to
be active learners rather than passively receiving
information. We argue that physical movement and
social interaction are essential in the middle school
classroom. In this way, teachers can meet the unique
developmental needs of young adolescents while
effectively teaching mathematics content.
National Middle School Association. (2010). This we
believe: Keys to educating young adolescents.
Westerville, OH: Author.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2018).
Physical activity guidelines for Americans (2nd
ed.). Washington, DC. Retrieved from: https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf
Deborah McMurtrie, Ph.D. is an assistant professor
and middle level education coordinator /program director
for South Carolina’s Center of Excellence in Middle-level
Interdisciplinary Strategies for Teaching (CEMIST) at the
University of South Carolina, Aiken.
Bridget Coleman, Ph.D. is an assistant professor and
leads the Secondary Mathematics Education program
at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. She’s also the
past president of the South Carolina Professors of Middle
Level Education (SC-PoMLE).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2020.