Should Children Be Listening with Their Whole Bodies?

Sometimes, sitting here in my office, I can be a little behind the curve. For instance, it was only recently that, thanks to social media, I came across the concept of whole body listening. Below is the photo I saw.

My jaw dropped. Following the astonishment was upset. Is this really deemed the way to help children listen and learn? To promote self-regulation? Is this really considered developmentally appropriate?

Well, apparently a lot of people don’t feel the same way I do about it. That particular poster is for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers, but there are similar ones on Etsy and other sites. Through a Google search I discovered there’s even a book called Whole Body Listening (Larry at School)! Here’s the description:

This is our 2nd book in our two-part series to help our students develop a better concept of holistic listening, or Whole Body Listening. In this charming comic book, based on the idea created by Susanne Poulette Truesdale (1990), the authors, Sautter and Wilson explore how two siblings, Leah and Luka struggle to focus their brains and bodies during the school day. Kindly, a peer mentor helps to explain to these students how they need to use their eyes, hands, feet, heart, brain, etc. to listen in group environments to not only access the information but to work as part of a group. Preschool through 2nd – 3rd grade students love the antics of our characters as they teach this important concept in a very fun manner!

I’m not able to look inside, so I can’t be sure their definition of whole body listening includes sitting cross-legged with hands in the lap. But I doubt the inclusion of hands and feet means the children get to move, stand, or sit comfortably as they listen. Fortunately, for some reason the “charming comic book” costs $106! That should keep it from becoming a best seller.

As I wrote here, when I asked that we let go of the tradition of crisscross-applesauce, children are far more likely to be engaged when they’re comfortable. And I doubt you’ll find many little ones who are comfortable being perfectly still. Moreover, as I explained here, children asked not to move, bounce, fidget, etc., use all their mental energy concentrating on that one demand, leaving nothing for whatever task is at hand. And I quoted occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, who has said the reason children are fidgeting more than ever is because they’re not getting the movement their bodies so desperately need. And that was before the pandemic, during which the children have had even fewer opportunities to move and play.

I imagine few people realize that sitting upright is an advanced balancing skill, acquired only once children have had ample opportunity to run and change directions, spin, swing, roll, and jump. As I wrote here, expecting a little one to sit straight and still is rather like putting a toddler on a tightrope and expecting her to stay upright. But if early childhood professionals, at least, were aware of this, there would likely be a lot less frustration for both them and the children!

If we want children to learn to listen effectively, why don’t we focus instead on active listening – and make it enjoyable? For example, during a game of Statues, the children must listen carefully for the start and stop of the music. During a game of Echo, the teacher claps out the syllables of the children’s names, after which the children echo the claps. During activities like this, the children want to listen because it’s fun, and fun is what motivates the little ones.

Below is “The Body Poem,” from my book Wiggle, Giggle, & Shake. Before reading it, the teacher tells the children they can point to, wiggle, or shake the body parts as they hear its name called out. The teacher reads it slowly at first but increases the tempo a bit with every reading. The children find it hilarious when it gets really fast.

I have two feet,

Two ears, two legs,

Ten fingers and ten toes;

I have two knees,

Two lips, two hands,

And even two elbows;

I have two eyes

And four eyelids,

So why, do you suppose,

With all these parts

On my body

I only have one nose?!

Some may believe there’s no place for hilarity in a classroom. But research has demonstrated that joy is vital to learning. Neurologist and educator Judy Willis has written, “Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen – literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research.” It’s true for everyone but likely is most applicable to young children.

So, how about we change the definition of “whole body listening” to mean that the children actually get to use their bodies while listening? Active listening. Active learning. That’s what’s developmentally appropriate for the little ones.

11 Comments

  • Tracy Hilton says:

    There is not a single thing I disagree with here. Rae you are absolutely right about how children really listen and learn. They need to be able to engage and move. This is how children learn. I have never understood the concept of sitting still equals learning. In the UK I have come across many practitioners who use phrases “good listening” and “good sitting”. To this day I have never been able to understand or explain what this means or looks like, so I am pretty sure a pre school age child would not understand either. When children are comfortable, having fun and are interested and engaged then they are more likely to be learning. In most cases this will involve moving and as you say Rae active listening and active learning.

    • Rae says:

      Thanks for the feedback and support, Tracy! We have to keep fighting for the basic right of children to be children! Clearly, whole body — or “good” listening — is all about control. That means it has far more to do with the adults than it does with the children.

  • Andrea says:

    I am guilty of asking children to sit with legs crossed. Learning to let it go and move on.

    • Rae says:

      Andrea, I can’t thank you enough for your honesty! It’s very hard to let this sort of thing go when it’s what you’ve been taught, or what’s always been done. I admire you for your willingness to try something different for the sake of the children.

  • Casey H says:

    Guilty!! I have used whole body listening (and a similar poster) for a few years now but don’t make them have the crossed legs. I say they can sit criss cross, mountain, or mermaid style. I’m more focused on them listening and not blurting, but practicing raising a hand to share. I do use a lot of body movements throughout the lessons so children aren’t forced to sit. I guess I didn’t think of it as a bad thing till reading this. Thank you for your insight. Now who can make an active listening poster?

    • Rae says:

      Oh my gosh, Casey; your comment has made me so happy! As you may know, I’ve created a free resource library for EC professionals. One of the 20 downloadable guides is “Emergent Literacy: All About Listening Skills.” It includes 10 activities to promote active listening. If you don’t already have access to the library, you can get it here!: https://www.raepica.com/free-resource-library-opt-in/

      Thanks so much for writing!

  • Funny – when I saw the term “Whole Body Listening” I assumed you would be talking about how young children listen and engage with their whole body. That young children’s listening uses their whole body – reacting, moving, engaging with their wiggles, excitement, and body movements mirroring their connections. Sadly, that was not what you were talking about.

    • Rae says:

      Sadly not, Cindy. What you describe should be what every ECE professional thinks of when they hear the term!!

  • Mary Burnitt says:

    I wish I had known this information many years ago when I was teaching 4 year olds. I am retired now but still continue to learn about how children learn best. I want to pass this information on to all teachers to help them teach better and help students learn better. I thank everyone who shares this knowledge with other teachers to help make learning fun for students.

  • Sam says:

    Cindy, that’s what I thought was coming as well! How can you use your “whole body” for listening if your whole body isn’t moving?

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