My Evolving View of Embodied Learning

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Liz Wolfson | Guest Contributor | @gals_inc

Ten years ago, I embarked on a professional journey embracing a simple premise: if we kept kids moving throughout the day in school we could shut down the perennial dialogue around gym class and whether it is legislated or funded or not, and we could attack and reverse kids’ view of school as boring.

Today my simple premise is a proven hypothesis, now much more complex in terms of implementation as well as outcomes. 

I am the founder of the Girls Athletic Leadership schools in Denver (GALS Denver), alongside of Nina Safane. GALS is an innovative school model:

It feels like a summer camp but isn’t.

It’s a school consistent in its academic success and performance within Denver Public Schools.

And it’s a growing local school network with the addition of a boys school this year.

At GALS, we lead with our bodies in order to maximize self-development, to optimize academics, and to model the value of diversity in all our lives. At GALS, we believe this is our given right as embodied individuals. And we are now replicating this approach and application as practiced in our flagship Denver school around the country.

Three years ago, we ran a billboard campaign in Denver to increase public awareness for GALS and to increase enrollment. We worked with a terrific firm-- Agency Zero--who captured our spirit and proposed a billboard that read: Run. Jump. Shout. Laugh. (and that’s just math class).

What a perfect snapshot of embodied learning.  And you can fill in the parenthesis with not only math class but any and all classes and public spaces in our buildings: “And that’s just science class/community gatherings/our board meetings.”

I am constantly refining my articulation of what it means to proclaim our schools teach embodied education. I truly believe if all schools, all work environments, and all family structures embraced embodied leadership and living, we would all be healthier, in a better mood, and able to participate more fully in civil public discourse. Lofty goals, I know. But in today’s times, there can be no other goals but lofty ones.

Here are a few examples in order to illustrate what our schools practice.

At GALS, we start off the day with movement in order to jumpstart the brain via the body, and then we infuse movement throughout the day, not just as brain breaks or brain boosts but rather breaks from formal traditional learning—we teach content through movement. The rhythms of the classrooms match the rhythms of the body: we warm up, we accelerate, and we cool down.

Learning together at GALS. Photo credits: Girls Athletic Leadership School. 

Learning together at GALS. Photo credits: Girls Athletic Leadership School. 

In our school and organizational community, we say “if you have a body you are an athlete,” so non-participation is not an option. Our classrooms and hallways are not silent. They are not orderly. They are full of joyful, engaged, participatory chatter. There is running. If you ask a prospective middle schooler why she chose GALS after shadowing for a half day, she will say because there is running in the hallways. Children through young adults are naturally in tune with their bodies, and we believe it is our responsibility to help them nurture and strengthen that organic impulse.

My premise of movement, of embodied learning, has certainly evolved in the past few years. Here is where I am now: When when we use brain science to understand the interaction between movement and learning, we optimize learning. We also improve social-emotional, relational, and mental health; each is highly connected to movement. Then there are the known lessons, the proven benefits derived from experiences in team and competition. And one more thing: when we add a positive gender focus and talk to girls about what they can accomplish—show them what they can accomplish—the results, in self-confidence, self-efficacy, and self-possession, are truly breathtaking.

Liz Wolfson created the vision for the Girls Athletic Leadership Schools ten years ago, raised over half a million dollars in angel funding, developed the strategic plan and opened the flagship schools here in Denver. GALS will graduate its first class in 2018 and the boys middle school opened its doors to students in August 2017. Due to Liz's leadership, GALS was the first Colorado home-grown educational network to expand beyond the state's border, with the opening of GALS Los Angeles in 2016.