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Holistic learning: how to engage the body in learning

29th Apr 2019
Director Saltbox Training & Events
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Holistic learning
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Holistic learning

Part one of Nicki Davey’s series on holistic learning explored why it’s important to engage the body, mind, heart and spirit in learning. This second article in the series focuses on the body and how to make learning a physical experience.

The body and mind are inextricably connected and messengers such as hormones and neurotransmitters provide constant communication between them so that our physical state influences our psychological state and vice versa.

Here are some practical ways in which you can engage the body in learning:

Physically relaxed and mentally alert

When our body is in a relaxed state and our mind is alert, we process information and ideas better and create stronger memories, leading to better learning.

  • Use meditative, repetitive activities that relax people such as colouring or walking outdoors

  • Connect learners with nature

  • Use simple relaxation techniques such as breathing techniques and visualisations

  • Play relaxing music

  • Use relaxing essential oils such as lavender, rose or bergamot

  • Use soft lighting to create a calm state – bring your own lamps or candles if necessary (avoid venues or rooms with fluorescent lighting which inhibits learning by triggering the stress hormone cortisol)

  • Maximise natural light – choose rooms with windows and open all the blinds and curtains

  • Choose a comfortable and relaxing room or venue (furniture and fittings made from natural materials are shown to make people feel more relaxed and emotionally positive)

Engaging all the senses

The more sensory stimulation we receive, the more neural connections are made, improving the organisation and functional activity of our brain. When all our senses are stimulated we form long lasting memories and recall and use our learning more quickly and easily.  

Vision

  • Create a visual map of the course structure/content and keep this in view throughout the course

  • Create colourful posters with images relevant to the course topic to stick on the walls

  • Ask learners to draw, rather than write, their thoughts or ideas

  • Use visual images as metaphors

  • Use costumes, hats or visual props

  • Use coloured stickers for learners to highlight key points (on flipcharts or handouts)

  • Ask people to close their eyes and visualise a situation (mentally visualising stimulates the same neural pathways as actually seeing something)

Hearing

  • Tell stories

  • Create silence for reflection or idea generation

  • Use speaking and listening games

  • Ask learners to create and perform a story, limerick or song about the learning

  • Use recorded sounds to recreate a place/time/state

  • Use ‘found sound’ (sound made from any items found in the immediate environment)

  • Play music to create a mood, anchor ideas, generate energy or emphasise learning.

Smell

  • Use materials that have a distinct smell such as play-doh

  • Use essential oils to create different moods

  • Put pots of fresh herbs on tables

  • Put scented flowers such as stocks, roses, freesias in the room

  • Ask learners to think of a smell to associate with their learning or how they feel

  • Provide nibbles that have a strong smell such as clementines

Taste

  • Provide healthy nibbles which include salty, sour, sweet flavours to stimulate different taste buds

  • Use food items (eg different types of nuts) to divide people into groups

  • Get fortune cookies made with key messages inside

  • Ask learners to describe their favourite food and what it says about them

  • Identify foods which act as a metaphor and encourage learners to imagine the taste in their mouth

Touch

  • Provide (non-plastic) fiddle toys for people to handle and play with during the course

  • Ask learners to create playdoh models to show how they feel, who they are and what they’ve learnt

  • Provide craft materials for learners to make their own name badges

  • Use sculpture or collage-making

  • Use games and activities that involve touching, holding and moving items

  • Pass round a highly textured item to show whose turn it is to speak

  • Use physical props that people can touch and hold to represent ideas or learning points

There are lots more ideas in our free factsheet 72 ways to make learning multi-sensory for more ideas.

Physical movement

Moving around strengthens the areas of the brain that are used for cognitive processing, problem-solving, creativity and memory, and can increase our memory and recall by up to 20%.

Physical activity activates the central nervous system, increases oxygenation of the brain and the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor – which is essential for creating strong neural pathways), and improves mood and boosts the morale and motivation of learners.

  • Use venues with plenty of space to stand up and move around or go outdoors

  • Use simple stretching or energising activities from yoga or qigong

  • Give learners a question or issue to consider while walking individually or in pairs

  • Ask learners to stand up and/or change seats

  • Use ball-tossing games to reinforce or review learning

  • Create treasure hunts where learners move around to find answers

  • Ask learners to stand up and write on flipcharts on the wall rather than sitting at tables

  • Use ropes or masking tape to map out models, processes or graphs on the floor and ask learners to stand and move around on them as they explore each stage or component

  • Use different physical actions or movements as anchors for different learning points

  • Incorporate activities from drama, mime or dance

Embodied or somatic learning

Embodied or somatic learning involves exploring, understanding and managing the connection between body, mind and the external environment.

Embodied learning activities involve learners noticing and learning from the interaction of their body, mind and environment to generate a deeper level of understanding about themselves and how they show up in the world. This can create powerful shifts in mindset, perspective, perceptions, paradigms and behaviour. Some simple ways to bring embodiment into your training include:

Attention

Ask learners to practice a particular activity (such as saying ‘no’ or listening to feedback) and notice what is happening in their body (breathing, body language, tension, heart rate etc), then consciously change their physical state before trying again.

Changing their physical state changes their emotional state which then changes how they interact with the others around them.

Centring

Teach centring techniques to help learners to respond to events or situations in a more considered and constructive way, rather than reacting automatically in a high alert/high stress state.

Grounding

Use grounding techniques to help learners reorient themselves to the present reality and manage feelings of anxiety.  

This is by no means an exhaustive list but hopefully these ideas will stimulate and inspire you to find your own ways of engaging learners on a physical level.

My next three articles will look respectively at how you can engage the mind, heart and spirit of learners.

The Holistic Learning Handbook: A practical guide for Teachers and Trainers by Nicki Davey and illustrated by Lauren Goodey, is due for publication by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in late 2019.

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