Dance parties, movement breaks and jumping around are a typical part of many pre-K classrooms. But jumping about isn’t just a way to get the wiggles out in Greenburgh Central School District, in a suburb of New York City.
Kids here are learning critical math and English skills through an online platform, called Kinems. Similar to a Nintendo Wii, the platform uses motion-based sensors and allows touchless interaction, enabling kids to control an avatar on the screen by moving their bodies.
Miriam Figueroa, a pre-K teacher in the district, said the physical activity combined with a virtual world with bright colors and animated characters is engaging, even for the shyest students, and also for students who struggle with learning differences such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism.
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The whole-body engagement is especially important to her students, nearly all of whom are in special education.
“The children really loved it,” said Figueroa. “They enjoy interacting with the screen while they’re learning readiness skills like colors, shapes and receptive languages like following directions.”
Before the pandemic forced the district to turn to remote instruction, Figueroa’s classroom was one of the first in Greenburgh Central to test the use of Kinems to support students with disabilities.
Now, the district sees the platform as one way to help safely transition its neediest students back into the classroom while continuing to follow social distancing rules, said Corey Reynolds, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and personnel at Greenburgh Central.
The length of time students use the platform can vary by grade level — in pre-K it may be just 15 to 20 minutes. Although some teachers only use Kinems for a short period of time each day, it does allow students to engage in active learning without the risks involved in sharing physical materials, Reynolds said.
“It’s really helping to mitigate the spread of germs,” he said.
The Kinems platform was initially created to help engage children with special educational needs and to improve cognitive and motor skills, according to Symeon Retalis, Kinems’ co-founder and chief scientific officer. Because the learning needs of these students vary, Kinems can be fully customized. Kinesthetic learning is woven into each game, whether it is focused on math or ELA. Teachers can personalize activities based on individual students’ academic needs or, for students in special education, the goals in their individualized education program, or IEP. The program gives teachers real-time feedback on both learning and motor skills.
Retalis, a professor at the University of Piraeus in Greece, worked with other educators, physical therapists and content developers to design multi-sensory educational games that integrate occupational therapy. The “unique recipe of Kinems” he said, is “using a theory of embodied cognition” — the idea that the body influences the mind — and body learning.
“When the body is active, then everything becomes more engaging, more stimulating, and children actively participate in the learning process,” said Retalis.
The games can also be customized to meet several state and Common Core standards. Early grade students may practice math vocabulary and learning to count, while older students practice math operations, language and vocabulary skills, and sentence structures and spelling.
Although the Kinems program has been used in U.S. schools for just a few years, a 2017 study of Kinems by Pace University’s School of Education found that the data “heavily supports the effective use of kinesthetic movement for the purpose of increasing student engagement and performance outcomes” for students with disabilities.
In Greenburgh Central, while there was immediate buy-in from some teachers, the use of Kinems didn’t really catch on until the pandemic, said Reynolds, the assistant superintendent. “Sometimes it can be a sentiment of, ‘Oh not one more thing,’” Reynolds said. But since the pandemic, he said the platform is being used more widely in the district — and not just in the special education program.
Still, the platform isn’t perfect. Now that many children are back in the classroom, early grades teachers have had to be especially vigilant in teaching kids the importance of keeping their distance from each other.
Retalis said it normally takes a couple hours of instruction for teachers to get used to the platform. But the tougher, more important aspect is training teachers how to match games to IEP goals, which requires more in-depth coaching. “We don’t change the way teachers work,” said Retalis. “We want teachers to have full control.”
Despite some initial bumps in the use of the platform, Reynolds said teachers in the district have already begun to see an increase in student interest and engagement. A teacher recently told Reynolds that one of her nonverbal students, who was often reluctant to follow directions, has become a model for other students when they use Kinems. “The level of excitement on that student’s face … was incredible,” said Reynolds.
This story about Kinems was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.