Power-Up Rhythm and Timing in Physical Education Activities

Physical Education class is an optimal setting for students to develop and practice the precursor skills that precede learning. These skills include core strength, balance, weight shift, motor rhythm, motor timing, visual-spatial, and object-perceptual skills. Due to a variety of factors including less opportunity for physical activity throughout the day, more seated classroom time, and fewer foundational motor experiences (swinging, climbing trees, jumping rope, building forts, and kicking the can in the alley), children’s fundamental motor skills are on the decline (Brian et al., 2019Hardy et al., 2013). 

123Children climb, run, skip, jump, push, pull, and move in different planes far less than they did 20 years ago. 

A recent study reported that 77% of a sample of children ages 3–5 years from across the United States were at or below the 25%tile with approximately 30% of children demonstrating profound developmental delays (<5%tile) in their gross motor skills, Brian et al., 2020. Deficits such as these in foundational motor skills have consequences for cognition and achievement.

Motor Skill Activities Enhance Cognition & Learning

Advances in neuroscience have resulted in substantial progress in linking physical activity to cognitive performance, brain structure, and function (Donnelly et al., 2016). Research shows that the motor skill development associated with consistent participation in physical education/activity can improve academic performance, cognition, visual-perceptual skills, attention, memory, and problem-solving skills (CDC, 2010; de Greeff et al., 2018; Fernandes, et al., 2016; Greco et al, 2023; Shi & Feng, 2022).

Moreover, Physical Education promotes cognitive development by stimulating neural pathways associated with socialization and learning. Physical activities improve blood flow and oxygenation to the brain, which enhances cognitive functioning, attention, and memory.

Activities in physical education often teach children important classroom skills including following instructions, making decisions, problem-solving, teamwork, and self-regulation. Practicing these actions through physical activity helps children develop executive function skills such as attention control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Recent evidence suggests that adding developmentally appropriate cognitive demands to patterned movement stimulates executive function and the precursor skills to reading and math (Paschen et al., 2019; Kolovelonis & Goudas, 2023). 

As knowledge of the impact of motor coordination on children’s cognition and academic achievement evolves, physical educators are increasingly integrating rhythmic coordinative movement into their daily classroom activities to prime the brain for learning.

The Importance of Rhythm & Timing in Development


Rhythm and timing play a crucial role in developing cognitive skills, motor coordination, and fine motor skills in children. This connection between rhythm timing and motor coordination has been studied across various fields, including kinesiology, neuroscience, auditory neuroscience, developmental psychology, and education.

Cognitive Skills: 

The link between rhythm timing and cognitive development is established by studies that have shown that children who engage in rhythmic activities tend to have better cognitive skills, including self-regulation, attention, memory, cognitive flexibility, and problem-solving abilities (Miendlarzewska &Trost, 2013). The rhythmic patterns present in music, for example, can help improve a child’s ability to process and remember academic information (See Bonacina et al., 2019Frischen et al., 2020).

Cross-Modal Integration: 

Rhythm and timing involve the integration of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic sensory inputs. This cross-modal integration enhances the brain’s ability to process the coordinate information from different sensory channels. As a result, children who engage in rhythm-based activities are better equipped to integrate sensory cues and appropriately respond to various stimuli (See Bharathi et al., 2019).

Educational Impact: 

Rhythm and timing activities have been shown to be related to reading prosody, grammar, and early math (See Lundetrae & Thomson, 2017). Children with better rhythm have been shown to learn with greater ease. Using rhythmic patterns to teach math concepts or language skills not only makes learning more engaging, but it also makes learning more effective.

Gross and Fine Motor Skills: 

Rhythm and timing activities often involve a combination of gross motor skills, larger movements involving multiple muscle groups, and fine motor skills with smaller, more precise hand movements. The ability to synchronize movements with rhythm is fundamental to children’s ability to pull to a stand, walk, run, skip, and gallop. As an example, dancing involves both whole-body coordination and intricate footwork at the same time, writing requires planning, visual tracking, core strength, and shoulder stability. Engaging and rhythm-based activities encourages the development of a wide range of motor skills, contributing to the foundational skills associated with learning.

Neurological Development: 

Research suggests that rhythm and timing activities can have a positive effect on the neurological development in children. Engaging in activities that require rhythmic coordination, such as clapping to a beat, dancing, and moving rhythmically, helps strengthen neural connections in the brain, particularly in the areas related to cognition, motor control, and coordination. These activities enhance the communication between different brain regions responsible for attention, planning, previewing, and task initiation.

3 Ways to Incorporate Rhythm and Timing Into Your Physical Education Class

#1: Learn the Value of 4/4 Time

Action: Teach your students how to think in 4/4 time.

Why: We live in a decimal society which is great for math, measurement, and science yet, it is not as beneficial to cognition and movement. In the western world, the foundation for human movement is actually in 4/4 time. We walk in 4/4 time, we dance in 4/4 time, and we even learn languages in 4/4 time.

How: Teach your students how to move in 4/4 time. Moving in 4/4 time, four beats to a measure, activates the natural musicality in the human body supporting skill development. 

Activity 1: Have your students stand up and count in time together, then move on the fourth beat.

“Can everybody count?”

“Let’s count together 1 2 3 4; 1 2 3 4; 1 2 3 4; 1 2 3 4.”

“Great, now, can everybody stomp? Let’s stomp alternating with our right foot and left foot on beat 4.”

“1 2 3 stomp right. 1 2 3 stomp left. 1 2 3 stomp right. 1 2 3 stomp left. 1 2 3 stomp right. 1 2 3 stomp left.1 2 3 stomp right. 1 2 3 stomp left.”

“Excellent, our bodies walk, talk and move in 4/4 time that is 4 beats per measure.”

Reflection: “Can you think for a moment what activities you do in 4/4 time, that is 4 beats to a measure?”

“Think about it… When you walk 1-2 1-2 you are walking in 4/4 time; When you brush your teeth, you are moving in 4/4 time. Even when you listen to me now, I speak, then you speak, we do that rhythmically in 4/4 time.”

“Great work! We are ready for our next activity.” (You have primed your students’ brains for learning now you can do you regularly planned physical activity lesson).

#2: Practice Static and Dynamic Balance

Action: Practice static and dynamic balance before you start an activity or during a break in the middle of the activity. 

Why: Taking the time to pause right before or during an activity provides an opportunity to practice response inhibition and self-regulation.

How: Teach your students how to balance in 4/4 time. Balancing in 4/4 time, four beats to a measure activates the natural musicality in the human body teaching the foundational skill of balance. 

Activity 1: Have your students stand in “ready position” with their feet aligned beneath their hips, their shoulders aligned above their hips, and their head held nice and tall with proper alignment and posture. Core is tightened, pulled in and up. Next you will teach them static and dynamic balance.

Why: Due to the demands in society, our children have less opportunity to practice and develop static and dynamic balance. Both skills are central to most of the physical activity lessons you will teach your students.

How: “Okay, let’s challenge both our thinking and our motor skills. I want us to count together out loud 1 2 3 4. Let’s do it again 1 2 3 4. Great.” 

“Now the next time we reach beat 4 we are going to all lift our right leg a few inches off the ground and hold that move for 4 beats. Ready count 1 2 3 lift (hold 2 3) and put your foot down on beat 4. Excellent.”

“Now, with our left foot. Count 1 2 3 lift (hold 2 3) down.”

“Easy or hard? You tell me?”

“Alright, now we are going to do the entire sequence twice. This will take some concentration. Are you all ready to focus?”

“1 2 3 Let’s FOCUS.”

“Count out loud 1 2 3 lift right foot (hold 2 3) down.

Count out loud 1 2 3 lift left foot (hold 2 3) down.”


“Count out loud 1 2 3 lift right foot (hold 2 3) down.

Count out loud 1 2 3 lift left foot (hold 2 3) down.”

If you wish to add dynamic balance have your students move forward in a lunge on beat four and then back to center. You can even teach your students to Walk Forward 2 3, Lunge (hold 2 3) Up, Walk Back 2 3, Lunge (hold 2 3) Up (return to ready position).

There are so many variations here, use your creativity!

“Wow! That took a lot of focus, good work, now our brains and bodies are primed for our next activity.”

#3: Apply Rhythm in Sport

Action: Teach a motor activity such as a soccer kick or bouncing a playground ball in 4/4 time.

Why: When children learn new motor skills it is easier if they do so in rhythmic time. You can teach a student how to bounce a ball, hit a ball with a racquet, or kick a ball all in rhythm. The cool thing is that once your students become used to moving rhythmically, then they can change things up. The rhythm is simply the scaffold the body relies on to learn the skill.


How: Soccer – If you are teaching a foundational soccer kick do so in time.

“Kids, we are going to learn how to kick a soccer ball. When we think about the steps they include: Stand on your non-dominant leg (balance), swing your dominant leg back (dynamic balance) and follow-through to kick the ball. 

This sounds like: 1. Stand (balance) 2. Extend leg back 3. Swing the leg through to kick the ball. See, it’s easy as 1 2 3, then rest.”

“Let’s try each step together.”

Count 1: Balance on your non-dominant leg.

Count 2: Extend your dominant leg back.

Count 3: Swing your dominant leg through to kick the ball.

Count 4: Rest


How: Ball Bounce – The same is true for bouncing a playground ball In Time.

Count 1: Hold the ball with two hands.

Count 2: Push the ball in a vertical path toward the ground.

Count 3: Catch the ball with both hands.

Count 4: Pause (rest).


Count 1: Hold the ball with two hands.

Count 2: Push the ball in a vertical path toward the ground.

Count 3: Catch the ball with both hands.

Count 4: Pause (rest).

Children need to experience the “felt-sense” of the pause when they are learning a new skill, so take that moment to teach them to “pause or rest” before they initiate the skill again.

A Few Quick Tips:

  1. When children are learning to move in time with rhythm it helps for them to count and say what they are doing OUT LOUD together as a team. This action leads to better social cohesion. It also activates biological entrainment which supports the students who may be having difficulty moving and speaking in synchronization.
  2. Feel free to SLOW Down. If moving (quickly) at 85-120 beats per minute is a challenge, encourage the students to perform the movements (slowly) at half-time 50-85 beats per minute until they get experienced with tempo, timing, and rhythm.
  3. Have fun with this process, it can be new to students. Encourage them to use their creativity, perhaps on beat four they choose a new movement together like a Superman position or a Clap/Clap, increasing the cognitive demands of the activities while feeling empowered and playful.
  4. Use your knowledge. You are experienced teachers. Change things up. Add rhythm to other activities you do. All you need is 2-3 minutes of rhythmic coordinative movement at a time to prime your students’ brains for learning.


Physical education class is the perfect place to develop the foundational skills that precede learning. Research shows that children have lost competencies in vestibular abilities, proprioceptive awareness, motor rhythm, tempo, and timing. When you incorporate what the body biologically knows well, rhythm and timing, motor and cognitive skills develop with greater ease. Importantly, you, as a physical education teacher, contribute in a meaningful way to the skills that underlie your student’s academic achievement.

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