University of Rhode Island, W. Kingston Elementary School pioneer research into the effects of movement on learning

Study outfits second-graders with kinesthetic equipment, language recorders

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Second-graders at West Kingston Elementary School use swivel stools and balance boards while they read in one of the school's kinesthetic classrooms. As part of a University of Rhode Island research project, three classrooms were outfitted with equipment that allows children to be in motion while they learn. Other kinesthetic furniture includes yoga balls, stand-up desks and pedal desks.
Photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I., June 5, 2017 —The second-graders at West Kingston Elementary School are models of scholarly focus, reading silently and intently. At the same time, they wobble in their seats, pedal their legs under their desks or sway on balance boards.

This is exactly what the children are expected to do in the school’s kinesthetic classrooms, where University of Rhode Island researchers studied the effects of movement on learning and language over four weeks in May.

“It’s everything we got in trouble for when we were kids,” Emily Clapham, associate professor of kinesiology, said of the jiggling legs and widespread wiggling.

Kinesthetic classrooms are not new, but the URI project is breaking new ground by measuring language patterns and usage in the context of movement. No other school is studying a kinesthetic classroom in a controlled manner, and no other school is looking at connections between movement, language and being on task, the researchers said.

Clapham and fellow researcher Michelle Flippin, assistant professor of communicative disorders, outfitted the school’s three second-grade classrooms with standing desks, bouncy foot rests, exercise balls, pedal desks, balance boards and learning stools — all of which allows kids to be in motion while they learn.

The equipment was purchased with $10,000 in grants from the newly formed College of Health Sciences, part of the University’s Academic Health Collaborative, and the Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies.

The language analysis is made possible through a private grant that Flippin received in late 2016 to fund the purchase of LENA digital language-sampling processors and software. The technology can digitally record up to 16 hours of audio and perform sophisticated analyses of each child’s language, distinguishing among adult and child speakers, turns in conversation and other elements. The children wear the recorders for an entire school day two days a week.

In addition, the researchers analyze data from pedometers the children wear and record observations of whether the 43 children in the three classrooms are on or off task at a given time. This final measurement serves as a snapshot for academic achievement, Flippin explained. Kinesiology and communicative disorders graduate students observe the children every 20 seconds and record whether the child is on task, and if not, if he or she is distracted by a peer, the environment, their own behavior, and whether they are using a particular piece of equipment.

The researchers took baseline measurements of behavior and academic focus before installing the equipment, then collected data weekly. They removed the equipment for a week, recorded more data, and then re-installed the equipment to continue the research. The children filled out weekly surveys assessing their own behavior and learning, as did the parents, Clapham said.

“We will have a wealth of data, so we will have a good idea of whether this is improving student focus as well as which piece of equipment works best for each individual student,” Flippin said.

The community at West Kingston Elementary School didn’t need to wait for research findings to offer their endorsements. “Oh my gosh, I love it,” said teacher Caighln Perrin. “We have a very rigorous curriculum, so for them to be able to move and make their own choices is super. They are ready to work, willing to work and motivated. And for some it even helps their confidence.”

The children will quickly tell you which piece of furniture they like best. “My favorite is the standing desk. When you move, it exercises you and it helps you focus,” one girl offers.

“You can kind of move around a little bit. If you get tired of sitting down, you can stand up and get a little stretch,” one boy explained.

“It never used to be like this,” Perrin said, looking around the quiet room of attentive readers. “It makes such a difference for them to be able to move.”

And more students will get to experience that difference in the fall. The school gets to keep the equipment.