Acting out in school is often a prelude to parents receiving a call from the principal. But, there are ways of acting out that tremendously increase learning — namely acting out as a way of grounding, or making sense of, abstract information.

There is a growing body of research showing the value of this sort of acting out. One example is the Moved by Reading intervention for teaching reading comprehension.  Using the intervention, children act out the meaning of sentences by moving images on a computer screen. If the child reads, “The farmer drove the tractor to the barn,” then she would move pictures of the farmer to the tractor, and both of them to the barn. This can double reading comprehension.

Why is this important? Reading is basic for much of Western-style education. Not only do we read for pleasure, but we read to learn in science, mathematics, history, and so on. Unfortunately, many American children fail to read with good comprehension.  For example, in 2011 only 67% of American children read at or above the basic level on the fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress.  The situation is even more dire for children learning English as a second language; only 31% of these children were at or above the basic level.  We may be a nation of immigrants, but our educational system is failing many of the students who will be core members of society in the near future. Acting out can contribute to improving the outcome.

Educationally beneficial acting out is based on the theory of embodied cognition. We often think of cognition as something cerebral, that is, as occurring in the brain and having little to do with the rest of the body. The separation of mind and body, however, is a myth. Cognition helps us to survive by guiding our behavior, and to do that, cognition must be attuned to the body. Imagine a mole popping out of a hole and seeing a snake. If the mole tried to fly away (disregarding its bodily capabilities), it would be dead.

Dennis Proffitt and his students have shown that human cognition, in this case, perception, also takes into account bodily capabilities. For example, people judge a hill as steeper when they are wearing a heavy backpack or when they are ill or tired: The greater the effort (e.g., to climb a hill or walk an extent) the greater the judged slant or distance. In other words, the perceptual system scales (or measures) distance not in terms of feet or meters, but in terms of bodily effort. Scaling distance by bodily effort even plays a role in some culturally-based perceptions.

But what does this have to do with school? The theory of embodied cognition also tells us that the abstractions that are important for language, mathematics, physics, and so on, are understood by grounding or mapping the abstract material onto our bodily experiences. For example, when you read the sentence, “The farmer drove the tractor to the barn,” you understand that sentence by using your experiences with farmers, driving, and barns to simulate the action described in the sentence. Remarkably, understanding such a sentence literally calls upon brain areas that control the arms (to simulate steering), vision (what tractors look like when moving), and more.

When children are learning to read, they spend an enormous amount of time and effort just learning how to pronounce the words from the letters, a process called decoding. (Decoding is especially hard in English because many letters have many different pronunciations.) In fact, some children come to believe that reading is just decoding. When these children read, it is for them a boring exercise in pronunciation: Because they do not map the words in their experiences (e.g., of farmers and tractors), they never fully understand what they are reading.

When a child engaged in Moved by Reading moves the image of the farmer to the tractor, she isn’t just playing. Instead, the child learns to map the meaning of nouns (like “farmer”) to the pictures, and perhaps more importantly, the child learns to map the syntax of the sentence (the who does what to whom) to her bodily actions (such as moving the farmer and the tractor). Thus, acting out teaches the child how to engage much of her body and brain in the process of reading comprehension.

Furthermore, after children have learned to physically move the pictures, they can be taught to imagine moving the pictures. That is, the children can start to do the mapping of words to experiences on their own (without the computer) and achieve similar levels of comprehension.

We have even shown that teaching children how to act out while reading helps the children to solve mathematical story problems. When faced with a story problem, many students ignore the story and look for key terms such as “more than” and try add the numbers. Often that leads them to nonsensical solutions. However, once the children are able to understand the story by acting out (either physically or in their imagination), they can sensibly do the right math.

Acting out isn’t just for young children; it also helps in understanding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) topics. For example, a deep understanding of the equation for centripetal force (F=m*v2/r) requires a mental simulation using experiences of force, mass, velocity, and radius of a circle. Of course, if you are missing the appropriate bodily experiences, or you are unable to map the abstract terms on to those experiences, then you won’t understand the equation for centripetal force, just like a child who has no idea what a tractor is will not fully understand the sentence about the farmer.

Importantly, acting out can help to provide those bodily experiences and mappings. In one experiment, college students learned about centripetal force by acting out. For example, a student would be asked to swing around his or her head a weight attached to a string. When the length of the string (r) is increased, the student can feel that the force required to keep the weight going in a circle decreases (which is why r is a divisor in the formula for centripetal force). This bodily experience helps the student to overcome the misconception that increasing the length of string should increase the force.

If you don’t believe that increasing r decreases force, imagine that you are on roller skates zipping around a circular track. To stop, you need to grab either a short rope or a long rope attached to a pole in the center of the circle. Which rope will generate a greater pull on your arm as you swing around the pole? The short rope: It will feel like your arm is being pulled from its socket. With the long rope, however, you will take a more leisurely-feeling journey around the pole. (And, if you used your imagination to understood the last few sentences, you will see how grounding abstract terms such as force and radius in concrete bodily experiences, such as roller skating, can generate new understanding.)

Appropriate types of acting out have also been shown to help children in learning mathematics. For example, when faced with a problem such as “6+ 4 + 3 = ___ + 4,” many children interpret the equals sign to mean, “add up all the numbers,” and they put 17 in the blank space. What is the best way to teach children the “equalizer” strategy (i.e., make one side equal to the other side)? The researchers taught some children to say, “to solve this problem, I need to make one side equal to the other side.” Other children were taught to use the left hand to sweep under the left-hand side of the equation and the right hand to sweep under the right-hand side of the equation, that is, equalizing in gesture. A third group was taught both the verbal and the gestural equalizer strategies. On a long-term test of strategy use, the children taught to use a gesture (alone or in combination with the verbal statement) retained the strategy better than did the children taught only the verbal statement. There is even work showing that acting out can help adults to learn the mathematics of complex numbers (which include a term for the square root of -1).

All of the work on acting out suggests that classrooms should include more physical activity designed to map abstract information onto bodily experiences. This suggestion dovetails nicely with some of the most exciting recent work in neuroscience. Scientists used to believe that the number of neurons in the brain could decrease (e.g., through trauma or alcohol), but never increase. We are now pretty certain that (at least in laboratory animals) new neurons are born, perhaps throughout the life span. Here are two amazing facts about neurogenesis. First, it is increased by physical activity such as running. Second, it occurs in the hippocampus, which is a neural structure strongly associated with memory in humans. Thus, if the results with laboratory animals can be extended to humans, it may well be the case that a healthy body literally produces a healthy mind. Furthermore, educational theorists who emphasize the importance of recess, physical education, and physical activity while learning—acting out—may have one of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience on their side.