In the philosophy of mind, there’s a concept called “embodied cognition,” which holds that thinking isn’t just something we do with our brains; we do it with our bodies, too. The big idea behind this theory is that “the mind” isn’t something that we should imagine as only confined to the brain; cognitive processes are also stimulated by bodily activity.

For example, I spell with my hands: there are words I can spell while typing that I can’t spell when writing longhand, because my memory of their spelling is locked up in the pattern my fingers make on the keyboard.


In effect, we think with our whole bodies. (And not just bodies. The principle can even be extended to technologies like word processors, and even religious artifacts.)

One area that embodied cognition researches have explored is how gestures affect cognition. Lots of people gesture when they talk, or think through problems; some of us (especially in Silicon Valley) get up during meetings and pace. What researchers are finding is that the gestures we make when we’re working on problems aren’t just ways of burning off nervous energy; gesturing actually helps us solve problems.

This is true of kids as well as adults. A couple years ago, a team of German neuroscientists studying high schoolers in Berlin discovered “differences between people who gesture frequently and those who gesture rarely,” suggesting that “gesturing may be a function of, and may even contribute to, brain development.” Now, a study from the University of York has shown that the same holds true for younger children. As Jessica Stillman explains on Inc.,

the research team asked 78 kids aged nine to eleven to list as many uses as they could think of for common household items like a tin can or newspaper (a standard test of creativity in psychological research).They found that the more the children gestured, the more creative ideas they came up with. Why?

“Gesturing may allow us to explore the properties of the items — for example, how the item could be held, its size, its shape, etc. — and doing so can trigger ideas for creative uses,” York University psychologist and study co-author Elizabeth Kirk explained.

But they didn’t stop there, as Science Direct explains:

In a second experiment, 54 children, ranging from 8 to 11 years old, completed the same alternative uses task. In some cases, children gestured normally; in other cases, the researchers instructed the children to “use your hands to show me how you could use the object in different ways.”

The data indicated that the encouragement worked: Children who gestured normally produced 13 gestures, on average, while those who were specifically prompted to gesture produced about 53 gestures, on average.

And encouraging gesture in this way boosted creativity: Children who were encouraged to gesture generated a greater number of novel uses for the everyday objects than did the children who were not given any special instruction.

One other very interesting finding was that restricting their ability to gesture did not seem to suppress how creative they were. In other words, kids who had to sit on their hands generated about the same number of ideas as kids who could gesture. but kids who were free to think with their hands came up with more creative ideas. As Kirk says,

Many people assume that we gesture to communicate, but it is becoming clearer that we often gesture to help us think. Previous research shows that children can be taught gestures to help them solve problems. This research shows – for the first time – that it also helps them to think creatively.

A preprint of the article is available as a PDF here.

So what does this mean for education? It certainly suggests that insisting that kids sit still and be “orderly” during lessons can inhibit problem-solving and creativity. More broadly, the research on embodied cognition should alert us to the ways that activities we might otherwise see as unproductive, or irrelevant to learning, or disruptions in the classroom, may actually help kids learn and solve problems.

Rope swing

It’s also important to see education as an enterprise in which the body is a participant, not irrelevant or a distraction. We already know that physical activity and exercise can improve learning in both children and adults; we should also help kids recognize that for some kinds of problems, getting up and moving around is going to help them find solutions.