Does your body’s movement affect your brain’s potential to learn?

One of the key takeaways when we look at ways to optimise the brain’s potential is the power of sleep, diet and exercise to positively increase capacity. Just knowing that exercise boosts the production of a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) that is key to forming new neural connections, thereby cognitive function is enough to encourage us all to run or cycle occasionally. In a Thinking School, we want all our students to be taking action to increase their learning power and hence the discussion around sleep, diet and exercise.

Following the theme of exercise and movement, thank you to Arabella Chute, the Thinking School Co-ordinator at Notting Hill Prep who recently undertook an innovative research project and shared their findings with the Thinking Schools Network. 

In collaboration with Guy Claxton, Caroline Williams and Emily Poel, the MOVE4SCHOOLS group began by exploring the question: ‘How does what your body is doing affect how your mind is working?’ Their first steps were to run CPD sessions for all academic staff outlining the scientific research and how the research would be run over the next term. 

As Arabella writes: 

Did you know that:

  • Our core strength is linked to stress control
  • Stretching tackles the mood-sapping effects of an overactive immune system.
  • Dance can support our emotional literacy.
  • Physical strength translates into emotional resilience.

One of the many exciting advantages of being in the teaching profession is that there isn’t really a finish line, there is always more to learn. Humans evolve, society evolves and therefore education is always (hopefully) evolving to take on board the changes that are constantly taking place. In many schools, education has come a long way from the ‘industrial’ model that our current system grew from, but many of us feel that we still have a way to go. As the educational world opens its doors to research in a host of disciplines, I feel that we are able to offer better, broader and deeper learning opportunities to all children.

As Thinking School Co-ordinator at Notting Hill Prep, one of the many exciting opportunities this role brings is to be able to run research in the school in areas that are interesting. I came across Caroline William’s book ‘Move’, where she explores the emerging science of how movement opens up a hotline to our minds. We felt that this was worth investigating further in an educational setting and before long the cognitive scientist, professor and author of many note-worthy educational books, such as Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than it Thinks, Guy Claxton; and Emily Poel, the co-founder of ‘Embodiment at Work’ came on board. 

Firstly, all teaching staff were given a copy of Caroline’s book Move to read over the summer holidays. Caroline, Guy and Emily then came into NHP to run a workshop with all staff members at the start of the term outlining the research and objectives. Following that, we ran individual workshops with Years 3, 5 and 7 to encourage them to explore the impact on movement and the brain over the coming weeks.  Each week we would focus on a different type of movement: such as walking, stretching, dancing, to name three; we would supply a few questions to explore and let them investigate. 

At the end of the research period, Caroline and I then ran reflection workshops and gave all staff and children a questionnaire to see what emerged. It was very much a collaboration between pupils and staff to see what worked for them in their own disciplines and settings. The main takeaway for Caroline, Guy, Emily and myself is that bringing movement into our lessons is something that we should all consider as teachers, movement doesn’t just belong in the PE lesson. We encourage teachers to explore this in a way that suits them. 

Some of the key observations from teachers:

Children are so much more engaged when they have the chance to move and stretch. It motivates and focuses them

It empowered the children and developed greater confidence

They were more engaged when doing academic activities

Putting this together: we’re familiar with focusing, it’s when you concentrate intently on something you’re trying to learn or to understand. However, we’re not so familiar with diffuse thinking and it turns out that this more relaxed thinking style is related to a set of neural resting states. Exercise or movement is one of the ways that we can shift from focused to diffuse mode. Go for a walk, move around or even stretch! I was fascinated to see some of the comments from their teachers about teaching students to ‘think and walk’ to help them think through a different problem. 

Exercise has been shown to improve various aspects of cognitive function, including attention, concentration, problem-solving, and decision-making. If anyone is interested in learning more about Notting Hill Prep’s research to discover how our teachers incorporated movement into their lessons and our key findings, please visit:

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