10 ways to teach math with movement

Looking back on my elementary school days, math was one of my favorite subjects. I enjoyed setting up my own little play store and restaurant, I loved how intertwined math was with sports, and it was one of the few times in the classroom where we would get up out of our seats. My fellow classmates and I were so excited when we would get to play “Around the World,” practicing math facts while moving around the room. (Anyone else remember that game?) I have memories of being bored, leaning slumped on my desk, but suddenly feeling energized, focused, and attentive when we were finally able to stand up and get moving! 

Well, there is a reason for that: Research has shown that children are most attentive, focused and at their optimal state of arousal when movement is involved in learning. A recent study demonstrated that motor rich learning activities directly improved mathematical performance. Even more significantly, the study identified that gross motor movement (whole body) activities yielded larger improvements than participation in fine motor activities in relation to math performance. Both the groups of children in the gross motor and fine motor math activities (using manipulatives at a table), however, demonstrated improvement over the control group of children who participated in paper and pencil math activities.

So, what does this mean? Don’t be afraid to get your children up out of their seats and moving when doing math—there really is a significant benefit! In fact, if you’ve found that teaching math using traditional methods with your child is not working,this study indicates that you should try thinking outside the box and incorporating movement activities into their learning. 

As an occupational therapist and homeschool mom, this is actually how we do math in our house! Math almost always includes movement activities and games where my children can move their bodies or use manipulatives to enhance their learning. Sure, we do pencil and paper activities as well, but the majority of the time with math, we are moving! Why? It is how my children stay the most motivated, most focused, and learn best!

Below are 10 activity ideas that you can try to  incorporate gross motor movement activities into your math lessons. Use these as springboards in your own homeschool—the possibilities truly are endless, and math can be incorporated into pretty much anything. Think about what movement activities your child is most drawn to and are most regulating for them, and then choose the activities that provide your child just right level of arousal where they are most focused. How do you know what these activities are? Try some out, observe your child, and see what works best. 

  1. Practice counting activities, skip counting, or multiplication facts while tossing a bean bag, jumping rope, walking along a balance beam, performing clapping patterns, or jumping through hopscotch patterns.
  1. Set up an obstacle course of math facts outside or around the house where your child has to move from one activity to the next by solving a math problem. 
  1. Play math baseball or kickball by completing a math fact or counting activity before you bat, then completing another one  to advance to the next base. Added bonus: Keeping score incorporates even more math!
  1. Stand on a wobble board or balance board while throwing bean bags into various baskets/buckets where each basket earns a different amount of points. Then, have your child add up the score. Alternatively, give your child a math fact and have them throw a bean bag at a target with the answer. 
  1. Have your child lie on their stomach on a scooter board or skateboard to roll around on the floor to retrieve different math problems to complete.
  1. Head outside to your driveway or sidewalk and place math problems on one end and the solutions on the other. Have your child ride their bike, scooter, or roller skate from the problem to the answer. 
  1. Put answers on some stuffed animals and place them on a tree branch or high on your swing set. Then give them a math fact corresponding to each animal for your child to climb and “rescue” it. 
  1.  Play “swing ball” by having your child swing on a swing, give them a math fact, then throw a ball for them to kick while swinging and answering. Added bonus: Have them keep track of their score.
  1.  Print pictures of animals and write math facts on the back of each one. Have your child pretend to be that animal or do an animal walk after completing the math fact. 
  1.  Try various rhythmic activities such as clapping, stomping, jumping, skipping to a song or beat while counting or performing multiplication facts. You can adjust the challenge by doing them fast, slow, or medium speed.

There really are so many possibilities when incorporating math and movement, I could go on and on! When trying to come up with ideas, remember to keep it simple and include your child’s interests. Don’t be afraid to have your child come up with games and ideas—they often come up with the best ones! So next time you feel stumped on how to make math more fun for your child, think about incorporating a little movement.

Kristin Palen, Pediatric OT
Kristin Palen, Pediatric OT

Kristin is a pediatric occupational therapist with over 18 years of experience, as well as a homeschool mom. Kristin has solely worked in pediatrics in almost every setting possible, spanning from a sensory integration clinic, a school setting, early intervention, home-based, and a pediatric rehabilitation hospital. Kristin’s areas of interest and specialty are sensory integration, nature-based occupational therapy, and responsive feeding therapy.

Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.

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