Kinesthetic activities have proven to be an invaluable approach to teaching and learning. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, cultural expectations, curriculum requirements, and lack of training, they are not utilized as often as they could be (especially at the secondary level).
Jean Piaget was a child psychologist whose name is widely credited with his work in child development. According to Piaget,
“All of the most basic facts about the world are first discovered through physical means. As the brain matures, facts are abstracted and related to other concepts. Although the ability to abstract a concept and make complex connections between concepts are considered to be signatures of a mature mind, humans learn best by doing something concrete first, and then abstracting to more general concepts” (“Kinesthetic Learning”).
I’m sure most of us would agree with Piaget in that associations are integral to students’ retention of new information. When I was completing my coursework for my reading masters degree, I learned about a kinesthetic approach from the NCTE that can be used to teach the writing process. Every year, I’ve used it toward the beginning of the school year or at the outset of a writing unit, and it works. Students enjoy it, and it provides them with a meaningful metaphor.
For this activity, each student will need a container of Play-doh, pencils, and some room to work. If your students have sensory aversions to Play-Doh, you can also use other crafty materials, like pipe cleaners or even construction paper and tape.
This activity teaches students that writers are sculptors. Writers carefully mold their work in the same way that artists create their masterpieces. During the activity, the teacher acts as facilitator. You’ll be using this script, or you can modify it or create your own.
Here’s a run-down of how each stage of the writing process is manifested in the activity:
In order to be able to evaluate our work when we are finished, we begin by establishing criteria we can later use to judge our work. Before we begin creating, I ask the entire class to brainstorm criteria for a good pencil holder: sturdy, functional, attractive, etcetera. We list them on the board so that we can revisit them to evaluate our pencil holders throughout the process.
After the criteria discussion, students brainstorm ideas for creating a pencil holder out of Play-Doh. They actually begin molding the pencil holder, and then the teacher instructs them to destroy it. This process happens more than one time. Students are always frustrated because they have become so attached to their initial creations.
I’ve found this activity provides the perfect way to explain how when we brainstorm topics, it’s important not to latch onto one in particular before we explore other options that could be better.
The teacher instructs the student to reflect upon the smashed creations and to take that knowledge, combine it with new ideas that were inspired as students worked during the prewriting stage, and create their first draft of a pencil holder. Sometimes students use one of their initial ideas, sometimes they use an idea that combines two or more of their ideas, and once in a while, students are inspired by their brainstorming and create something entirely new during the drafting stage.
As students work, teachers can help students understand that the prewriting stage is often the most time consuming but that when we diligently work to prepare ourselves for writing, the drafting process goes more smoothly.
After drafts are completed, students are asked to pair up and ask one another, “Do you know where the pencil goes?” In this way, writing is like sculpting because in both, we have to consider our audience and purpose. Will our purpose for writing or creating be obvious to our audience? It should be.
During the revision stage of this activity, students are invited to look at their draft with fresh eyes. By examining their pencil holder from various angles (kneeling beside it, looking down from an aerial standpoint, standing farther away), students might be able to see what needs to be refined. Students then invite classmates to give them feedback as well. After all considerations are taken into account, students make the changes they deem necessary.
It’s during this stage that I direct students’ attentions back to the list of established criteria on the board. Those ideas developed in our prewriting stage help us to focus on making meaningful revisions.
Emphasis can be placed upon the fact that revision continues through the end of the writing process. It’s not trapped in the space between drafting and editing. Writers constantly examine their work and decide to tweak it.
In order to help students understand the differences between revising and editing (two often confused stages of the writing process), this activity focuses on editing being detail work. You can explain to students that editing changes are minor. They often focus on punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and other polishing details.
During the activity, students edit by trading Play Doh with someone who has a different color. This Play Doh is then used to add finishing touches, detail work, to make the work more “readable.” As students trade and tweak their creations, I talk to them about how authors often seek out other people to help them edit their work. Sometimes, we are blinded to our own mistakes, but a pair of fresh eyes can provide insight that we might be overlooking.
We don’t want students to see editing as a “once and done” task. After the first round of edits are made, students once again examine one another’s work and give each other ideas for improvement.
In finishing the lesson, students are encouraged to reflect upon what they have created by returning to the originally established criteria. Writers can craft pieces that use beautiful words and complex sentence structures. However, if the piece as a whole doesn’t make sense or doesn’t resonate with the intended audience, the essay can still be a flop. In the same way, these pencil holders might be vibrant and creative, but are they functional? Do they get the job done?
When students “publish” their pencil holders, they are essentially giving them a title and walking around the room to examine everyone else’s sculptures.
THE NEXT STEP
The first year I used this script with my class, I was a little at a loss for what to do after the activity was completed. It was meaningful and engaging, and it helped them to understand the writing process, but afterward, they quickly forgot the information. I needed a bridge to transfer these ideas more concretely to the writing process. So. I created some reflection questions for students to either complete that day for homework or the next day to review. You can download them here.
I use this kinesthetic activity as a hook that leads into formal, direct instruction about the writing process. You can view the details of that lesson at the end of this post.
Even at the high school level, I find my freshmen and sophomores still have difficulty remembering the stages and what happens during each one. Part of this lack of understanding is due to the fact that teachers use different terminology for the same concepts, which confuses students. Another contributing factor is that when students have learned about the writing process, it wasn’t memorable for them.
Having built a common foundation and laid the groundwork for what happens during each stage with this kinesthetic metaphor, students are more engaged as we move forward and discuss the writing process together the next day – and throughout the year.
Click on the image below to view the details for my stages of the writing process lesson. I use this one-day review after the Play-Doh activity. Coupling the kinesthetic learning approach with this visual and auditory one results in a meaningful learning experience for a wide range of students.