Three lesson plans to teach science through movement

Third-graders at Mt. Eccles Elementary School create a glacier dance.

A group of third-graders gathers in the center of the classroom, ready to learn how water cycles through precipitation, evaporation and condensation. They have no open textbooks, No. 2 pencils or notebook paper nearby. They have only their bodies as their learning tool.

With hands above their heads, the children wiggle their fingers and bring their hands in front of their faces. Suddenly, they move their arms from left to right and back above their heads. They repeat the back-and-forth motions, each time moving their arms faster and faster. This is rain in Cordova, Alaska, where they live. They then lie on the floor, propped up on their elbows, and wave their legs in the air from side to side to represent a water stream. The children go on to act out a waterfall, lake, storm front and rainbow. Within a few minutes, they have danced the complete water cycle.

In science, some concepts are easier to understand through movement. Like Marita Kleissler, who led the Mt. Eccles Elementary School students through this water dance, educators across the nation are using movement to teach scientific concepts in elementary and middle schools, and it is working. Compared to traditional lecture lessons, students grasp the concepts better, remember the lessons and think more creatively—all while having fun.

DT spoke with three educators who shared the following movement-based lessons they introduce in elementary science classrooms.

Lesson:Water cycle

Goal: To understand the sequence of the water cycle—evaporation, condensation and precipitation—by using creative and abstract thinking

Intended for: Third grade

Time needed: 35 minutes

Suggested music: “The Hunt,” by Mickey Hart

Taught by: Marita Kleissler at Prince William Sound Science Center, Cordova, AK

Lesson plan: Kleissler starts the lesson by reading the book Water Dance, by Thomas Locker, to the students and asking them to remember keywords in the water cycle: rain, stream, river, waterfall, lake, ocean, mist, cloud, storm front, thunderhead, storm and rainbow. A student is chosen to decide on a movement for rain and then the class performs the move. Another student then thinks of a movement for stream, which sequentially comes after rain in the water cycle book. They add that move to the dance and perform the sequence from the beginning with music. Each time a new movement is added, the students perform the dance from the beginning. The material is learned through repetition, which helps them remember the sequence of events.

Helpful tip: Challenge the students to use different body parts and to vary the dynamics and levels. For instance, students may show rain by wiggling their fingers in a downward motion. Then ask them to show rain with a different body part, like their heads, or to show it on a different level—perhaps sitting on the floor, and at a slower pace. The movements become abstract representations rather than miming the literal concept. This helps to ensure that the students understand the concepts and are not absentmindedly performing the actions.

Lesson: Skeleton/anatomy unit

Goal: To understand the role of the bones, muscles and joints in movement and body design, and become familiar with anatomical vocabulary

Intended for: Second grade, but can be tailored for other grades

Time needed: Two 45-minute sessions

Suggested music: “Ghosts,” by Vassilis Stenos

Taught by: Ana Nery Fragoso, at PS 315 School of Performing Arts, New York

Marita Kleissler explains the water cycle.

Lesson plan: Start with an exploration phase in which students make different shapes with their bodies. They can curl into a ball to make a round shape or twist their bodies to make a spiral, for instance. They experiment with levels by making shapes with their bodies near the ground, middle level (knees are bent) and high level (body is upright). For each shape, students are encouraged to think about the bones and the muscles and joints that hold the bones together. Then ask the students to imagine life without those joints. They should try to drink a glass of water while pretending they don’t have elbows, or try to get up from the floor without using their knees. Students can feel and see the concepts working in their bodies.

Helpful tip: Throughout the lesson, use a skeleton model to teach the students the names of the body parts and bones involved in their movements. By the end of the lesson, students should be familiar with the vocabulary, such as pelvis, spine, ribs, femur, tibia, fibula, patella, humerus, ulna, radius, scapula, clavicle and cartilage.

Lesson: Insect metamorphosis

Goal: To learn the life cycle of a honeybee

Intended for: Second grade

Time needed: 35 minutes

Suggested music: “Flight of the Bumblebee,” originally written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Taught by: Laura Egli and Joe Bins, past education major students of Nancy Joan Krattiger-Ziltener from University of Wisconsin—Madison

Lesson plan: Introduce the lesson by showing pictures of the six stages of a honeybee’s life cycle. As a class, arrange the images in the correct order: The queen lays an egg in a cell, worker bees feed food to the hatched larva, then it turns into a full-sized larva. Worker bees seal the cell off with wax, the larva transforms into a pupa and the adult bee emerges. (Place the images in a circular layout, to convey that the cycle repeats.) The teacher demonstrates that to represent an egg, the students should squat with their hands over their heads, like in a tornado drill, and tilt to the side. Verbal instructions are sufficient to lead the students through the remaining stages. For the larva stage, the students stretch, stand up halfway and pretend to nibble on food from worker bees; they raise their hands above their heads to simulate the wax sealing of the honeycomb; as they enter the pupa phase, the teacher explains that they are developing wings, a stinger and their entire body. The children put their hands behind them to show a stinger. Finally, they become adult bees and can “buzz” around while music plays and pretend to feed new larvae.

Helpful tip: This is part of a series of lessons on insect metamorphosis. It is taught after students learn the life cycle of a butterfly, which is very similar to the honeybee life cycle. Comparing and contrasting the two life cycles can help expedite and reinforce the understanding of both cycles. DT

Kasha Patel is a freelance writer pursuing a master’s degree in science journalism at Boston University.

Photos courtesy of Marita Kleissler

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