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Tips For Imaginative Educators #5: Engage The Body

Posted by on in Teaching Strategies
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Human beings have bodies. Obvious?  Yes.  Unfortunately, the fact that all learners have bodies is far too often forgotten in education.

After elementary school, it is unusual to see educators employing teaching and learning practices that engage the body. When I was a secondary school teacher I rarely saw embodied practices in any classes other than Fine Arts and PE. At that time, I didn’t consider how to employ the body in my teaching of French grammar or history. I heard nothing about the body’s role in learning when I did my teacher training. Now, at my university, I rarely hear my colleagues discussing how to deepen meaning in their graduate or undergraduate courses in ways that engage the body. This is a huge problem.

The fact we have bodies has HUGE educational implications. It means that wherever we are, we have a set of tools that help us to learn new things and to make sense of our experiences. Kieran Egan’s theory of Imaginative Education reminds us of this: our bodies are the primary means through which we make meaning in the world around us.

One of the dangerous misconceptions we continue to hold in education is the sense of the “rational mind” as somehow divorced from the feeling body. Many educators do not appreciate or understand the ways in which the body’s tools can deepen and enrich all learning.

We don’t teach talking heads. We teach embodied minds and hearts—Body And Mind—BAM!

(Read more about the enminded bodies--embodied minds--we have as humans and what that means for teaching here: The Danger of Designing Lessons for Thinkers)

Have you heard of the “Dance Your PhD” contest? This contest challenges PhD candidates to express their thesis findings and conclusions through their bodies. Click here for examples of some of the most academic and theoretical concepts being conveyed through the body. For example, in the Biology category, Florence Razoux dances the PhD thesis, “Functional MRI to assess genetic and environmental influences on serotonergic neurotransmission in mice.” In the Physics category Kiel Howe dances the PhD thesis, “Extending the Supersymmetric Little Hierarchy.” The winner of the 2015 contest in the Social Sciences category is Florence Metz who dances the PhD thesis, “Do Policy Networks Matter to Explain Policy Design?”

These academic topics are far from “elementary”—and yet the BODY is engaged in expressing these incredibly complex ideas; the body’s role in learning is not just “for kids.”

Now, dancing isn’t the only way to engage the body's learning tools.  I don’t dance for my students nor do I insist that my students dance if they are not comfortable doing so. But I do ask them to convey complex and abstract ideas from our seminars through postures or gestures. And I do teach in ways that reveal patterns. And I do employ the body’s senses all the time in my university courses.

4 Easy Ways To Engage The Body’s Learning Tools

The following tips are for all teachers/instructors/professors in all subject areas. When we can contribute body-based understanding we deepen and enrich understanding. We engage emotion and contribute to meaning. 



Human beings are gesturing animals. We use our bodies to show intention and express meaning. We point at things we notice (good and bad). We have body language to express emotions. Use this learning tool in multiple ways through “charades” type games. (But no “sounds like”!) Challenge your students to use the body to express an idea or concept, character, word, event, or process. Students can be asked to justify and explain their movements and how they reflect meaning of a topic/concept/idea.

Science: What postures or gestures would convey different elements in the Periodic Table? (Great resource by Donna Dickens: 112 Cartoon Elements Make Learning The Periodic Table Fun. The artist of all these characterizations of the elements is Kacie D. Students could take on these "characters" and use their bodies to learn and convey different properties.)



Human beings are very skilled at noticing and making sense of patterns of all kinds. Indeed, we do so all the time; if we didn’t we wouldn’t be able to do things like speak a common language, do math, or read a map. We couldn’t get by day to day. Sure, you are probably thinking that the dancers, painters, poets, and musicians of the world are exceptionally good at identifying, evoking, and conveying emotion through patterns of movement, rhyme and rhythm. You need not be a virtuoso musician, artist or dancer to engage these tools however. All human beings do so all the time.

So, this means that you can encourage your students seek all kinds of patterns in topics (conceptual, procedural, visual etc.) What cycles are seen in the topic? What is repeated?  Why?

Human beings also identify and appreciate the patterns of sound around us; we enjoy music. We are musical animals. Ideas can be conveyed through sound. How? You can ask students: If this concept or topic was a drum beat or a stomping pattern, what would it sound like? Beyond the drum, how might pitch, tone or tempo—how might music—reveal the topic? Students can create sounds that evoke some pattern of meaning or idea.

Social studies: How can rhythms express different forms of government—Democracy vs. Communism vs. Totalitarianism etc.? (Students can also provide an explanation/justification of their chosen sound).


We are sensory animals and our senses frequently evoke emotional responses.  How can we feel, touch, taste, smell, or hear the topic at hand? Or how would a concept feel, touch, taste, smell, or sound?  What's important to note from the sensory experience is the feeling tied up with the knowledge gained.

Science: Experience animal adaptation: Blubber glove—Steve Spangler Science 



Perhaps the most important thing to remember for learning is that we are emotional animals. Feeling is the way to remembering.  So how are strategies #1-3 listed above (and other tools of imagination) engaging emotion?

That’s your aim as an imaginative educator: to leave your students feeling emotionally connected to topics by shaping your teaching in STORY FORM. (p.s. That’s Teacher Tip #1—find it here: Tips for Imaginative Educators: #1 Find the Story)

Final Comments

It’s worth repeating: all learners have bodies. We have a body-based kind of understanding that we can engage and develop in all learning. We are perfinkers—we have embodied minds so “learning” involves perceiving, feeling and thinking at the same time. 

How do you teach in ways that engage the body? Leave a comment!  Let me know!

Read all the TIPS FOR IMAGINATIVE EDUCATORS in the Tools of Imagination Series.

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Dr. Gillian Judson (@perfinker) is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in B.C., Canada, one of the directors of the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), and coordinator of the Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) program.  Her research and teaching is primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning.  She also investigates how an ecologically sensitive and imaginative approach to education can both increase students’ engagement with, and understanding of, the content of the curriculum but can show it in a light that can lead to a sophisticated ecological consciousness. 

She is author of the books Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education:  Practical Strategies For Teaching (Pacific Educational Press, 2015) and A New Approach to Ecological Education:  Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York:  Peter Lang; 2010), and co-author of the book Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (New York: Teachers’ College Press; in press).  She has also edited the book Teaching 360°: Effective Learning Through The Imagination (Rotterdam: Sense Publishing, 2008) and co-edited the books Engaging Imagination and Developing Creativity in Education (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press; 2015) and Wonder-Full Education:  The Centrality of Wonder (New York: Routledge; 2013).

Learn all about imagination-focused practices (K-post secondary) at imaginED: education that inspires.









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