The Movable Classroom
Moving, engaging, and learning — a brand new kind of classroom
The Waldorf approach to education has long supported student learning by promoting high-quality nutrition, plenty of sleep, enough warmth, and lots of recess and fresh air. Yet even in Waldorf schools, students—especially those in the early grades—can struggle to stay focused during lessons. They fidget, readjust their positions, slouch in their chairs, or flop onto their desks. In spite of our best efforts, young children, it seems, simply have trouble paying attention. At Pine Hill Waldorf School, we thought we had tried everything—until now!
Enter the Movable Classroom. Conceived in Scandinavia and developed in Germany,1 the Movable Classroom is a concept that meets children in a new way. Instead of traditional desks and chairs, the Movable Classroom uses low benches that can be moved and utilized in a multitude of ways. Whether in a circle, a horseshoe, as a long lunch table, or grouped for children working in pairs… whether as an obstacle course or a balance beam … whether in rows “just like a normal classroom”… these benches lend themselves to flexibility, form and supreme functionality: the Movable Classroom invites children to learn—and love learning—in an environment that is both amenable to them and productive.
At Pine Hill Waldorf School, we welcomed the Movable Classroom into our first and second grades in the 2010-2011 school year, and now have the Movable Classroom in grades one, two and three.
We are further emboldened to pioneer this concept by research about the relationship between children, learning, and the physical environment. Since the turn of this century, growing evidence from the fields of neuroscience, child development, and education has shown a powerful connection between movement and cognition in children.2 Evidence indicates, for example, that there is a connection between postural control and the executive function of attention. Postural control is the ability to stabilize the trunk, neck, and head so that skilled tasks, such as reading and writing, can occur.3 Executive functions (EFs) are cognitive abilities such as attention, self-control, and problem-solving that govern other learning tasks.4 In the early elementary years, if postural tone is weak (i.e., when a child’s body lacks sufficient muscle tension to maintain an upright position) there are greater demands placed on the executive system (i.e., a child needs her brain power to stabilize her balance rather than to focus on a lesson). This means that a child has fewer cognitive resources to use for paying attention. Slouching in a chair, fidgeting and wiggling, or flopping over a desk are symptoms of postural fatigue and therefore poor attention. So, when we help a child develop her postural control, her executive function of attention can switch over to learning.
Children today are noticeably lacking postural tone because today’s culture is increasingly sedentary: hours per day are spent sitting in cars, sitting in front of media, and sitting at desks. Movement activities of all kinds are necessary to develop postural control: walking, running, climbing, balancing, jumping, lifting, throwing, and more. The action of sitting, when not supported by the back of a chair or by leaning on a table, also activates postural muscles. When postural control becomes automatic, more attentional resources are available for cognitive processing. Thus, movement can support thinking.
At Pine Hill Waldorf School, we hold as our greatest tenet the honoring of the unfolding of childhood, and we work diligently to understand true child development. In an age where countless schools are cutting recess and physical education, we hold fast to these valued elements of our curriculum so that all our students can reap the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive benefits of movement activities.
The inauguration of the Movable Classroom aimed to restore lost movement time and create an academic setting that is developmentally conducive to learning. While the implementation of this innovation will not be a panacea for every student’s needs, we are confident that all students will derive some benefit, and many students will greatly benefit from this change. And while the Movable Classroom opens opportunities for learning, the children within will learn the greatest lesson of all: that school is a child-friendly place where education is dynamic, interesting, and FUN!
1 In Germany, one-third of the 222 Waldorf schools have Movable Classrooms (known as the Bochumer Model 2000).
2 See Bibliography