Although the United States educational system has gone through significant structural changes throughout its history, its fundamental mission has remained the same: to nurture the minds of young people. Even in the midst of heated discussion over whether our educational system is “broken” and how it needs to be fixed, we can at least support this fundamental mission. Or can we?How about if this mission was wrong all along?Of course, it would be foolish to argue against the value of helping students acquire knowledge. One of the great things about education is how it can open pathways to new perspectives on the world, and lead to innovation and personal and social change. The problem is not that educators are feeding the mind, it’s that we’re all too often starving the body.When we reflect on powerful experiences that shape who we are and how we view the world, we’re flooded with sensory data that blankets what we learned. We might not piece everything together, but certain things stick out: a feeling of danger, the smell of wet grass, the discomfort of a desk chair, or the intonation of a teacher’s voice. What we learn, even if it’s out of a book, is supported by experiences in the world.The reality of learning is that it’s not just an act of the mind; it’s situated. Learning is informed by our bodies and perhaps even significantly aided by them. Cognitive scientists call this “embodied cognition,” or the notion that what we think and know is shaped by bodily activity.
Unfortunately, classrooms all too often fix students in desks, and educators reward students for sitting still. Classroom work, occurring in the brain and on the page, does not leverage embodied cognition. Recess or gym provide brief moments of release set off from the “real” learning. This classroom of the mind might hinder the intellectual development of students, but more importantly it’s not representative of knowledge acquisition in the real world.Innovative educators have long known about the benefits of embodied learning, reconfiguring classrooms, taking students on field trips, doing citizen science outdoors, or making yoga part of the school curriculum. And, using motion tracking technology, companies like SMALLab are designing and assessing games and interactive educational experiences that blend physical and digital space. Once cutting edge and prohibitively expensive, these systems have the potential for widespread educational use as videogame consoles make motion control a standard feature.
But motion control systems are just the latest development in a centuries long legacy of play-based educational activities. In many ways, embodied learning is at the foundation of play but rarely explicit. We can witness centuries of formal and informal games—from London Bridge to Sim City— across the world that have preserved history, taught people social skills, and provided an accessible way for thinking through complex problems and systems.
By making play and the body central to the classroom we’re not just making education more fun, or more engaging (although those are not necessarily bad byproducts). We’re also, finally, fixing a deeply flawed system that cut off the body and spited the mind.