Moving to literature
by Connie Green
ASKS HER CLASS OF 3-YEAR-OLDS to
gather on the rug for story time. “Today we are
going to hear about Sasha the dog,” she says.
Nate jumps up and down, clapping his hands with glee. He has heard Sasha
the Silly (Sharmat, 1984) many times and adores it.
Instead of requiring all the children to sit still, Ms. Talbot asks them to
stand up and move along with the actions depicted in the book. As she begins
reading, some children choose to be Sasha, and some assume the roles of Rolf
the Rhino and Dracula Dog. Other children act out one character after another
as they hear the words.
Nate, who has borrowed this book from the library several times, enacts the
role of Sasha, a dog who wants to be fancy. He cocks his head, moves his feet,
and at one point pretends his ears are on the top of his head like Sasha’s.
When the story ends, he wraps his arms around his chest and spins around fully
satisfied with himself.
Sasha is just one of the children’s favorite books. Others are From
Head to Toe (Carle, 1997), Pretend You’re a Cat (Marzollo, 1990), and Jiggle,
Wiggle, Prance (Noll, 1987). The children also enjoy acting out simple folk
tales like The Big, Enormous Turnip and Three
Billy Goats Gruff. Usually Ms.
Talbot narrates while the children perform the actions. But sometimes with
prompting, children try to speak the words their characters say.
MOVEMENT IS THE NATURAL WAY IN WHICH young children learn. As
you watch children play indoors or outside, you probably won’t
see them being still for very long. Healthy children move their
bodies spontaneously—running, stretching, spinning, climbing,
and jumping for the pure pleasure of motion. They curiously explore
the world around them as they dig in the dirt, peek under rocks,
and gaze out at their surroundings from a perch in a tree.
According to child psychology pioneer Jean Piaget (1962), children learn primarily
by interacting physically with the environment, acting on objects, and observing
the results of their actions. Through physical explorations, children seem
to “…draw out a deeper understanding of the world in which [they]
live” (Griss, 1998).
Exercise and fitness are significant not only for children’s bodies,
but also for their minds, emotions, and social development (Benelli and Yongue,
1995). Children move to survive, to learn, and to find out about their own
bodies and the outer world (Landalf and Gerke, 1996).
Movement builds muscles and strengthens the cardiovascular system. It lengthens
attention span, supports social interaction, increases imaginative problem
solving, and enhances self-confidence. In fact, movement and drama contribute
to all areas of development: emotional, physical, social, cognitive, language,
and creativity (Brown and Pleydell, 1999). See the “Benefits of moving
to literature” chart on page 17.
Brain research on movement
Why is movement so important for children? Recent research on the
brain may provide the answer. Scientists now know that various
systems of the body are joined in a partnership of the brain
and body (Caine and Caine, 1997). Whatever affects children’s
physiology also affects their emotions and their learning capacity.
In a comprehensive review of brain research and its applications
to education, Caine and Caine state, “The body is the brain,
and the brain is the body.” The findings of brain research
build a strong case for including movement experiences throughout
the early childhood curriculum.
The section of the brain that processes movement is actually the same part
of the brain that is involved in learning (Jensen, 1998). There is an ongoing
interplay between movement and cognition, with physical activity enhancing
brain function. The cerebellum, the area that processes movement information
before it is sent to the cerebral cortex, is also home to more than half the
brain’s neurons (Jensen, 1998). This part of the brain controls attention
and monitors incoming information as well as helps coordinate movement, maintain
balance, and plan and carry out motion. For this reason, learning is usually
less problematic for children who have opportunities for active movement.
Certain actions, such as swinging, rolling, jumping, and spinning, stimulate
the inner ear and help children develop balance and coordination. Some spinning
activities can also increase alertness, attention, and relaxation (Jensen,
1998). In addition, when we engage in aerobic exercise, which provides our
bodies and brains with oxygen, our memory improves. Studies of Canadian school
children show that when physical education time is increased, academic scores
improve (Hannaford, 1995; Martens, 1982).
Howard Gardner (1993, 1999), in his theory of multiple intelligences, discusses
eight different types of intelligence. One of those is bodily/kinesthetic,
which refers to special awareness and learning through creative movement, dance,
and physical behavior. Children whose primary mode of learning is bodily/kinesthetic
benefit most from learning by movement.
However, including physical activities, music, and visual arts in the learning
process can enrich the learning of all children. Western society has long separated
the body and the mind, usually giving more importance to mental abilities.
We now know that children’s learning begins with motor development and
that movement and thinking go hand-in-hand throughout life (Pica, 1997).
To connect movement and literature, consider two primary approaches: 1) stories
and poetry that directly focus on movement of animals, children, or objects,
and 2) stories that lend themselves to dramatic enactment and imaginative play.
Poems and stories that highlight movement
JUMP! SPIN! TWIST! GIGGLE! SOME
POEMS AND stories make us want
to get up out of our seats and move. Whether it is gentle, yoga-like
stretches, or more energetic moves like stomping and pounding,
children love to be actively engaged with the literature they
hear. Physical responses are not only enjoyable; they also help
children associate words with feelings and movements. Using their
bodies, their senses—seeing and hearing—as well as
their emotions helps children increase their comprehension of
stories or poems.
Many books written for young children lend themselves to active learning. Early
childhood teachers might read a poem or book aloud first, talk about actions
depicted in the illustrations, and invite the children to creatively interpret
the movements. Clap Your Hands (Cauley, 1992) joyfully and energetically depicts
children and animals expressing themselves through action. Children will be
eager to try rubbing tummies while patting heads, tickling, wiggling toes,
spreading feet to look upside down, and other contagious stunts. Clap
Your Hands is also available in big book format, making it easier to use with a
group of children.
Jump or Jiggle
Sea gulls glide
—E. Beyer in Read Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young
Those who work with infants and toddlers will enjoy The
Game Book (Wilmer, 2000). The book’s rhymes and games combine
physical and language play. The author reminds us that complex
movements such as ballet dancing and swinging a baseball bat have
their roots in early childhood actions of clapping, bouncing, and
swinging. Playing baby games—Rub-a-Dub-Dub,
and toe and finger games—also forms a positive bond between
child and caregiver. As babies listen to the poems in this book,
they will learn about body parts and the meaning of movement terms
in a playful way.
One way children show their enthusiasm and excitement for life is by bouncing.
Bouncing Time (Hubbell, 2000) shows a toddler bouncing like different animals
during daily activities and a trip to the zoo. This lively, rhythmic, and colorful
book will persuade toddlers to bounce about on their own, and may show families
that bouncing is a typical and healthy outlet for toddlers and 2-year-olds.
Another energetic book is Toddlerobics (Newcome, 1999). As they squat like
frogs, snap like crocs, and hop like kangaroos, toddlers can explore the ways
their bodies move and practice new skills. The colorful pictures of children
from many cultures will delight all ages.
Poetry and rhyming books appeal to children’s growing delight in the
sounds of language and to their emotions. To help children understand and respond
appropriately to emotions, teachers and parents can read poems such as the
How to Be Angry
Scrunch your eyebrows
up to your hair
pull on your chin
and glare glare glare.
Puff out your cheeks,
puff puff puff,
then take a deep breath
and huff huff huff.
—Eve Merriam in Higgle Wiggle Happy Rhymes
Children might begin to learn ways to convey and diffuse their anger by dramatizing
the expressions described in the poem above. It shows them a method for sharing
negative feelings without hitting, yelling, or throwing tantrums, as some 2-
and 3-year-olds are prone to do.
At one Head Start center, the children run up to a reading volunteer each time
she enters the classroom, checking to see if she has brought their favorite
book—No David! (Shannon, 1998). David is always getting into mischief
by tracking mud onto the carpet, making too much noise, picking his nose, and
running outside naked. As the volunteer turns each page, the children make
facial expressions and gestures just like the main character and shout, “No,
David!” (Most children can relate to hearing “No!”) On the
last page children are reassured that David’s mother loves him even when
he is naughty.
Other books that foster emotional development include the following: Glad
Monster, Sad Monster (Emberly and Miranda, 1997), L Is for Loving:
An ABC Book About the Way You Feel (Wilson-Max, 1999), When
Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really
Angry… (Bang, 1999), and Where the Wild
Things Are (Sendak, 1963). Children
might act out parts of the story or make facial expressions to demonstrate
their understanding of the feelings addressed in each book.