Mindful Movement in the Classroom

[Promote hope, will, purpose, competence, & fidelity]

Julianne Lenehan


As I scan across my kindergarten classroom, I see one child finishing a math worksheet on the floor, another building a life-size Lego castle, a small group working together at a round table to make a picture book, and a few sitting on pillows reading “The Hungry Caterpillar.” Our door that opens directly to the garden is propped open, and I can see two children working together to water our plants, and another searching for earthworms. There is a sense of spontaneous self-discipline here, and the environment is calm and peaceful. In the past, I have worked as a teacher in a more traditional classroom setting, and most of my time was spent on behavior management and discipline. The children were made to stay seated and immobile while the instructor delivered lessons but, ironically, it was a noisier and more disruptive environment. I work within the realm of Maria Montessori’s classroom philosophy, which believes that the individual will of the child is superior to the adults will for the child. I have seen firsthand that, when a child is given options and control, they absorb information quickly and easily. However, the freedom of movement that is proving so important to children’s optimal functioning seems to be very difficult to accommodate in conventional classrooms.

The research project of James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic, has explored the question: ‘Do children really need to sit at desks to learn?’ He designed the prototype ‘school of the future’, which inspired teachers to experiment with standing workstations, or bouncing on stability balls instead of chairs. Dr. Levine believes that the most significant advance in education will come from a child’s opportunity to move at school. He says: “Children are so amazing; they actually love to learn, we just have to let them move naturally.”

I often ask myself: ‘What gets in the way? Why are the majority of young learners still sedentary?’ In order to delve deeper, I asked parents and educators the following question and received several different responses:

We have seen that exercise in any form, free play or organized exercise, dramatically increases learning. What are your thoughts on incorporating more physical movement into your child’s day?

  • 1. “It’s a nice idea, but it just isn’t practical.”
  • 2. “Too much movement in the classroom is messy, chaotic, and disruptive.”
  • 3. “If I let my child play too much or move too much, they might get hurt.”
  • 4. “Other parents will judge me for allowing for playtime before more serious things, like homework and organized extracurricular activities. Then, I begin to worry that my child will fall behind!”

As a child, I attended the Horace Mann Elementary School, whose name honored a gentleman credited as the father of the modern education system. Horace Mann started the Common School about 150 years ago. The purpose of this school was to teach students how to follow directions effectively so that they would be prepared for factory work. A few years later, due to a shortage of teachers for the Common School, he created the Normal School where teachers were trained to lead classes. During the early 1900’s, when Mann began laying the groundwork for his school, factory workers were in high demand and being trained to follow rules and were of upmost value. Children needed to be obedient, sit still and listen to instructions in order to thrive in the world at the time. Desks were to be arranged in evenly spaced rows, children were instructed to sit still, and teachers were considered the omniscient leaders of the school.

The terms “common” or “normal” are not in a modern teacher’s vernacular. It can be considered a negative reflection on children’s wide range of natural abilities and it is not conducive to our current world of technology, creativity, and innovation. I have seen classrooms, worldwide, honor the importance of movement breaks between lessons, and longer recess times. However, I believe that we still have a long way to go before movement is truly incorporated into the learning environment in a way that is less segmented between mind and body.

A traditionally held belief is that the physical self and intellectual self are separate entities, which is why physical education and recess are disconnected from the academic learning environment. When we consider the whole child, though, we can see that it is the physical body – muscles, senses, and brain – that connects them with their environment. Without the body and opportunities for sensory activity, the child is stunted in his/her ability to express intellect and creativity (Montessori, 1969). In future articles, we will explore the realm of physical activity and freedom of movement in their relation to the learning environment. I am an advocate for all children to run, play, and explore freely because I have seen firsthand the benefits to the overall well being of the child. When we take a step back from our own will for the children, and begin to create space for the child’s will for him/herself, the importance of children’s freedom will be difficult to ignore.


Julianne Lenehan
Head Teacher, Cocon Kindergarten
Munich, Germany


  • 1. Mental development must be connected with movement and is dependent on it.
  • 2. Without opportunity for sensory exploration a child’s learning is stunted.
  • 3. An optimal learning environment is created by the child’s will.


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