16 Fun Movement Activities for Counseling and Classrooms
Updated: Nov 22
In 1961, President Kennedy said school children needed physical activity to thrive (JFK Library, as cited in New York Times, 2017) and in the past couple of decades we have learned more about the positive impact of movement on the brain and learning, yet children have become even more sedentary, probably because of their increasing use of technology.
The research (CDC, 2020) demonstrates the many benefits of body movement and physical activity, and one can make the leap that physical activity and recess should therefore be prioritized in schools. Yet many school administrators feel a lot of pressure to increase “time on learning” due to high-stakes standardized testing requirements, and many school districts have even had to cut movement-based activities.
The Hechinger Report notes that “thirty years of focus on increasing academic minutes in the school day has resulted in reduced recess and physical education time at many schools” (2018). In fact, in the United States, more than 48% of schools have no physical education classes (Phit America, 2021). With many schools not even providing gym class for kids, integrating movement into the classroom is even more needed today!
How Does Movement in the Classroom Help Students?
According to (Mahar et. al., 2006) even simple movement-based activities in the classroom can boost performance and “studies suggest that children who participate in short bouts of physical activity within the classroom have more on-task behavior, with the best improvement seen in students who are least on-task initially.”
Another study conducted by Minnesota's State Department of Health and Education found that students who were physically fit were much more likely to score better on state standardized tests. In fact, it was noted that these students were 27 percent more likely to be proficient in math and 24 percent more likely to be proficient in reading” (as cited in Star Tribune, 2017).
Movement can not only improve children's academic achievements but their behaviors toward purposeful activities can also be increased. For example, a school in Texas made some major changes when they gave kindergarteners and first graders four 15-minute recesses a day (instead of one 20 minute recess) and the changes were quite impactful (NPR, 2016). They determined that the students were “more focused in class and that teachers were able to move through curricular material faster. Off-task behaviors in class decreased by 25 to 35 percent and students’ body mass indexes (weight divided by height) stabilized or decreased” (NPR, 2016).
Movement is crucial when students are learning new material as well. Nguyen (2019) states that this process “works by students moving their bodies for either break between lessons, for example, brain breaks, or students moving their bodies as a form of remembering a vocabulary word (running in place when learning the word run) Students will begin to develop new neurons that connect the different parts of the brain which help send messages throughout the brain and body (Block et al., 2008; Chisholm & Spencer, 2017; Hwang et al., 2014; Lombardi, 2008, as cited in Nguyen, 2019).
In the words of Bob Murray, Ohio State University pediatrician, “If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you're giving them in their memory, you've got to give them regular breaks” (NPR, 2016).
It’s also important to remember that Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences states that people learn in many different ways, not just one particular way. For example, you may have students who are visual learners, logical learners, or movement-based kinesthetic or touch learners. In addition, “some students can have more than one preference for learning” and “when educators incorporate learning with movement through brain-based learning and action-based learning, they have more students connect their learning. Teachers are reaching more students within their classrooms by using this type of learning style" (Hall, 2007, as cited in Nguyen, 2019).
How Does Movement Affect the Brain?
In terms of the impact of physical activity and movement on the brain, different areas of the brain are impacted by movement, especially areas involved in goal-directed activities such as learning, reasoning, memory, cognition, and problem-solving. Here is a very brief synopsis of how movement affects the brain and learning:
The hippocampus has a major role in learning and memory. It has been demonstrated that physical exercise enhances hippocampal activity and function, improves cognition, and regulates mood (Chieffi et. al., 2017).
The prefrontal cortex is the “CEO of the brain” (as I learned in anatomy and physiology) is involved with many of the higher-order functions of the brain like reasoning, problem-solving, planning, decision making, and creativity. And participating in physical activities has been shown to lead to “more efficient functioning in the prefrontal cortex” (Conyers, 2015).
Serotonin, Dopamine, Endorphins, and Cortisol are chemicals that the brain releases during movement. Serotonin plays a role in mood stabilization, while endorphins and cortisol help manage stress, and dopamine has a role in motivation (Blackmer, 2018).
16+ Movement Activities for Counseling Sessions and in the Classroom
Wondering how you can incorporate movement activities for counseling sessions or into your classroom, or therapy sessions? If you are doing any type of work with kids, whether you are a counselor, social worker or psychologist, or if you are an educator doing a math, science, or reading lesson, you can find ways to incorporate more movement into your work with children! Read below and you'll find some fun ideas.
I spoke with a dance-movement therapist and licensed School Adjustment Counselor, Jasmine Dowery, MA, R-DMT, who said that: “I often remind teachers that movement breaks can range from Gross Motor (large) movements such as dancing, stretching, yoga, etc. to fine-motor (smaller movements) such as journaling, coloring, and even breathing intentionally. It’s important for students to regularly access their bodies to stay motivated. I would recommend utilizing a variety of methods multiple times a day particularly during transitions.”
Jasmine then goes on to share a mirroring exercise with us: “I ask students to check in with their body and show a movement or gesture to share how they are feeling. I invite students to try on the feeling with their bodies too.
For example, a student checks in to say, ‘Today I feel tired’ and places their palms together places their hands on the side of their cheek. Then, all students mirror that movement and back to them.
These exercises help students take a minute to really think about what their body is telling them and shows students that people express themselves differently. One student may use tired and place their head down and another student may stretch their arms up to the sky to represent the same feeling.”
Video Brain Breaks
Another way to incorporate more movement into the classroom is to schedule brain breaks into your day. Go Noodle is an AWESOME resource for engaging brain break videos. Another fun resource for videos is Cosmic Kids Yoga for brain break videos and they have movement-based stories around topics that kids love like Minecraft and Harry Potter.
Would You Rather? Yoga Brain Breaks
Kids love movement and they love to answer Would You Rather? questions, which also helps build the social-emotional learning competency of self-awareness. So, I have incorporated both of these areas into my Brain Break Would You Rather Yoga activities!
You can buy each of these resources separately, or save money by purchasing them in this huge growing bundle which also includes seasonal and holiday editions! This means, you purchase now and lock in the price and you'll get new resources for free when I add them in!
Making Data Collection Fun with Movement Games
True story, I love data and I am big into progress monitoring and data collection. Whenever I am collecting data on IEP objectives, I always turn it into a fun movement-based activity! I might have the kids take turns with an indoor skee ball game, with these sticky balls safe dartboard, or with a ring toss, or bean bag toss. It is
simple, fun, and effective to incorporate movement into my data collection and sessions and the kids LOVE it!
Using Balls in Counseling and Why I Love the O-Ball
This is so basic but kids love it! Just throw a ball and whoever catches it answers a question or prompt. I love to use these o-balls because they are lightweight and easy to catch, which is helpful if any of the kids have issues with motor control. It’s also just helpful for kid’s self-esteem because they feel more confident when they catch the ball! You can also use a larger ball and roll it around or kick it with feet. I have this Catch it, Check it, Change it CBT Football based game, where kids learn to identify unhelpful thoughts (catch them), check them to see if they are helpful or unhelpful (check it), and then change unhelpful thoughts to more helpful thoughts (change it) with a football theme. I use a soft lightweight football with it, and the kids loved it!
Using Chalk for Active Counseling Movement Games
I started doing more sessions outside with kids during the COVID-19 pandemic so I began using a lot more chalk to help incorporate more movement into the sessions.
For the measuring challenges session in Skills for Big Feelings, children learn to measure the size of a challenge or problem using a 4-point scale, so we drew the 4 images to represent the scale on the ground in chalk. When it was their turn, the kids would then pull out a scenario card, and move to the appropriate area that matched the size of the challenge. I did a video on instagram highlighting this so you can check it out here.
Another example of using chalk is with this 100 Coping Skills Activity, the kids drew 3 squares, spaced apart on the cement. The square on the left said “Yes I would try this!” the middle one said “Maybe” and the last square on the right said “No thank you.” They would then take turns pulling out a coping skills card, and then move (and often dance) to the square that matched that scenario. They also had a checklist with a clipboard so they could check off which skills they most wanted to use as well.
Freeze Bubble Pop
Play music and blow some bubbles or use a bubble maker machine. Have the kids pop the bobbles when the music is playing and stop popping the bubbles when the music pauses. This is great activity to practice impulse control! The kids can also take turns blowing the bubbles, which is a great way to practice patience (while they wait for their turn) as well as taking slow, deep breaths, which is another technique to help with self-regulation.
Bop around a balloon (be aware of latex allergies) and work together cooperatively to keep it in the air as long as possible.
In my comprehensive social-emotional curriculum to teach children self-regulation strategies, Skills for Big Feelings, we play a game called F-B-T-S (Feeling-Breath-Thought-Skill) Balloon Bop and the kids love it!
There are so many movement games you can do with parachutes! You can have the kids answer questions and then take turns running under the parachute and swapping sides. You can place papers with answers – like letters or numbers under the parachute, then ask the child a question, and have them run under the parachute to retrieve the card with the correct answer. For example, “Tyrone, what is 5-1? Tyrone would then run under the parachute and grab the 4 card. You could do this with a feelings session by putting emoji cards or even use vocabulary cards for higher-level concepts for older students as well (they still love parachutes too!)
Four corners is another fun classroom-based activity that kids love to play. You don’t need to just have the corners be related to a number, they can be related to the content of the lesson as well – such as a feeling, or the size of a challenge on a 4 point scale.
These are great activities to use for getting to know each other, building relationships, and when building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year. The counselor or teacher draws an imaginary line across the room, and designates one end of the line as 0% and the opposite end of the line is 100%. All the spaces in between then represent every possibility between 0-100%. The counselor or teacher then reads a statement such as “I like to go to school” or “Recess is my favorite part of the day” or “I always ride the bus to school,” and the students move their bodies to place themselves on the appropriate place on the line. The questions typically start very general, and slowly warm up to become more personal, as participants feel safer.
There are multiple ways you can play this game. One way to play is that things you touch are “frozen” unless someone else retouches them and makes them come back “alive.” Or you can play music, and when it is paused everyone freezes. Alternatively, you can hold up images of body poses and when the music stops each person freezes their body in the pose that is shown on the image.
A stretchy band is another fun way to bring movement (and connection) into the classroom or with counseling groups. There are so many ways to use this prop but one way is to ask a question and have the students do certain movements with the band if they agree, or disagree etc.
Ask one person to be a Simon. Simon gives directions with the phrase “Simon says” in front of it and the other children follow along. For example: “Simon says scratch your back" or “Simon says jump up-down" or “Simon says clap your hands." If Simon doesn’t say “Simon says” in front of the action phrase, then the child should not do the action. If the child does the action, they are “out” and sit down until the next round.
Hula Hoops for Social-Emotional Learning Activities
I love hula hoops because they are so versatile! You can use them to do so many different social-emotional learning activities around boundaries, personal space, locus of control, etc. You can also just use a hula hoop for placing around your hip and swaying, skipping, or jumping inside or outside of the loop!
Grounding Exercises Scavenger Hunt
Have the students move around the room (or outdoors) to touch the objects they can see, touch the objects they can hear, touch the objects that have a texture they like, touch the objects they can taste, and touch the objects they can smell. You can also try this with different prompts such as: touch objects that are soft, touch objects that are the color purple, touch an object that makes you feel happy, etc.
Hide “treasures” (they could be random or even related to the lesson – in my case I have hidden emoji feelings pictures around the room) and have the children go on a treasure hunt to discover them.
Gentle Stretches Yoga Movement Dice Freebie
And I've got this freebie of yoga movement dice for you in my free resource library. Just scroll up to subscribe today to get access to my SEL resource library (make sure you opt into the automatic email that gets sent out)! Make sure you respond to the opt-in email so you can get access to this and a lot more goodies!
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