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Kinesthetic Learning

While all of us experience the physical world through our bodies, people who have strong bodily-kinesthetic intelligence tend to use their bodies to express ideas and feelings. These individuals are often talented athletes, dancers, skilled technicians, and actors. Though children who possess this orientation may not be verbally expressive, they can express themselves through moving their bodies, which often frustrates teachers and docents.

Teaching children who learn bodily-kinesthetically can be challenging, especially for docents and staff educators who tend to be linguistic and spatial learners. At the J. B. Speed Art Museum, we came up with a few touring movement activities, such as having children stand in a contraposto position to emulate the pose found in classical sculptures. We also used props to help children understand the principles of design in a physical sense. For instance, docents use silk cords to explore lines in art, having students construct lines for themselves that are calm, excited, etc.

When the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) was introduced in the early 1990’s, our school touring program shifted its teaching methods to include a variety of new instructional strategies, including many more kinesthetic ones. To assist us in our efforts, we worked with a local movement artist, Mary Ann Maier, who designed a set of kinesthetic activities that docents could use with visitors. Ms. Maier created a menu of nine kinesthetic activities that teach three basic visual art concepts:

  • movement and gesture,
  • composition and line,
  • and stories in art (including plot and character development)


To prepare the docents for this new initiative, Ms. Maier came to present a workshop on the nine activities in a large, open area of the Museum where the docents would have plenty of room to participate. Then, she took the docents through the activities step-by-step, having them experience each kinesthetic part of the program. The docents were reluctant at first, but once they began to experience kinesthetic learning, they were very enthusiastic.

For tours, each docent works with groups of approximately 10 students, which is the Museum’s standard tour group size. The kinesthetic activities used are geared for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.


A group begins its kinesthetic experience with a warm-up exercise designed to “break the ice.” These quick activities (about two minutes each), based on basic theater warm-ups, are fun and funny, demonstrating to students that museum visits can be creative and enjoyable.

During the game “Tinglies,” students stand in a circle and begin by wiggling their fingers like worms. The docent then asks them to add their wrists, then arms, then heads, then bodies, wiggling quickly. Following this, the docent slows down the activity — first the bodies stop wiggling, then the heads, etc. until they are just moving their fingers. When they stop completely, participants experience a vibrating sensation. At that point the docent asks, “Can you feel the tinglies?”

Following the warm-up, docents conduct three activities, one from each of the basic art concepts, lasting about 7 minutes per activity.

Movement and Gesture

A favorite movement activity is recreating the spiraled snakes seen on Yoruba carved door panels. The spiral, a symbol found in many cultures, is often symbolic of the dynamism of life, and through movement this concept is easily reinforced. Students begin by looking at the spirals on the doors and discussing where else they may have seen this symbol. Then, the docent asks the students to make spirals in the air with their fingers. This progresses to making spirals with their whole arms, and finally with their entire bodies. After the “dance” is completed, the docent discusses with the group why snakes, spirals, and other shapes and designs appear on these panels.

Prior to looking at Mademoiselle Pogany by Brancusi, docents discuss gesture as indicators of behavior and expression. She asks students to create gestures that demonstrate how they are feeling at the moment. The group mirrors the gesture of each participant. Then, when the students look at the art work, the docent asks, “How do you think Mademoiselle Pogany is feeling?”

Composition and Line

When teaching about composition, a particularly effective activity involves having children recreate a painting using their bodies. Using Monet’s The Church on the Cliff, for instance, students are challenged to spend a few minutes inspecting the work, paying careful attention to elements of the composition, including light, shape, texture, sizes of elements and placement of objects, etc. The group is then asked to recreate the work using their bodies. Someone could be the tree, another person would be the church, and so forth.

Once everyone has taken his or her position, the docent might say, “The wind is blowing — how does this change your position? What does the composition look like when the wind blows?” Music can also be added to alter the mood of the piece, giving it another layer of meaning.

Stories in Art

Perhaps the most popular group activities involve storytelling and character development. With a Dutch portrait of a man and woman dressed like Penelope and Ulysses, children wear costume props, invent dialogue for the pair, and act out their reunion. Following the activity, the students feel as if they “own” the work as they have experienced being Penelope or Ulysses first hand.

When examining a Rembrandt portrait of a woman, students are engaged in another storytelling activity. They select odd objects from a box and use them to tell a story about the woman. For instance, a student might select a pince-nez and say, “These are my glasses. I have bad eyes because we didn’t have any electric lights in my day. Look at all the wrinkles around my eyes.”

Kinesthetic Activities for All Museums

Kinesthetic activities can be used in all different types of museums. In historic homes and history museums, for instance, students can act out different tasks, such as spinning wool, sweeping floors, pumping water, and so forth. In science museums, movement activities might demonstrate how atoms are joined to molecules or teach students about different forms of animal locomotion.

Kinesthetic activities are useful in all settings. Educators have long been aware that students respond to teaching techniques that are most effective for the students’ individual learning styles. Certainly, we have found that many of our visitors respond well to kinesthetic learning experiences.

Nancy Renick is the Associate Curator Of Education for Adult Programs at the J. B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY. She holds an MA. in Art History from the University of Minnesota and was previously at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Martin Rollins is Associate Curator of Education for School and Family Programs at the J. B. Speed Art Museum. Mr. Rollins is also a visual artist who received his M.F.A. from the University of Cincinnati and his B.F.A. from the Louisville School of Art.

Renick, Nancy and Martin Rollins. “Kinesthetic Learning,” The Docent Educator 7.1 (Autumn 1997): 6-7.

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