Understanding the Meaning of Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence

Women running on athletic track
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Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, one of Howard Gardner's nine multiple intelligences, involves how well an individual controls her body in terms of physical activity and/or fine motor skills. People who excel in this intelligence typically learn best by doing something as opposed to just reading and answering questions about it. Dancers, gymnasts, and athletes are among those that Gardner sees as having high kinesthetic intelligence.


Gardner, a developmental psychologist and Harvard University education professor, decades ago developed a theory that intelligence can be measured in many ways other than simple IQ tests. In his seminal 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences and his update, Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons, Gardner laid out the theory that paper-and-pencil IQ tests are not the best ways to measure intelligence, which can include spatial, interpersonal, existential, musical and, of course, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.  Many students, however, do not perform to their best ability during pen and paper tests. While there are some students who function well in this environment, there are those who do not.

Gardner's theory unleashed a firestorm of controversy, with many in the scientific -- and specifically psychological -- community arguing that he was merely describing talents. Nevertheless, in the decades since he published his first book on the subject, Gardner has become a rock star in the education field, with literally thousands of schools taking up his theories, which are taught in nearly every education and teacher-certification program in the country. His theories have gained acceptance and popularity in education because they argue that all students can be smart -- or intelligent -- but in different ways.

The 'Babe Ruth' Theory

Gardner explained bodily-kinesthetic intelligence by describing the story of a young Babe Ruth. Ruth was playing catcher -- some accounts say he was just a spectator standing to the side -- at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore when he was 15 and laughing at the bumbling pitcher. Brother Matthias Boutlier, a true mentor to Ruth, handed him the ball and asked if he thought he could do better.

Of course, Ruth did.

"I felt a strange relationship between myself and that pitcher's mound," Ruth later described in his autobiography. "I felt, somehow, as if I had been born out there." Ruth, of course, went on to become one of sports history's greatest baseball players, and indeed, perhaps history's top athlete.

Gardner argues that this kind of skill is not so much a talent as it is an intelligence. "Control of bodily movement is localized in the motor cortex," Gardner says in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, "and with each hemisphere dominant or controlling bodily movements." The "evolution" of body movements is an obvious advantage in the human species, says Gardner; this evolution follows a clear developmental schedule in children, is universal across cultures and thus satisfies the requirements of being considered an intelligence, he says.

People Who Have Kinesthetic Intelligence

Gardner's theory is connected to differentiation in the classroom. In differentiation, teachers are encouraged to use different methods (audio, visual, tactile, etc)  to teach a concept. Using a variety of strategies is a challenge for educators who use different exercises and activities in order to find "ways a student will learning a topic.

Gardner defines intelligence as an ability to solve problems.  But, whatever you call it, certain types of people have a great intelligence -- or ability -- in the bodily-kinesthetic area, such as athletes, dancers, gymnasts, surgeons, sculptors, and carpenters. Further, famous people who have displayed a high level of this kind of intelligence include former NBA player Michael Jordan, the late pop singer Michael Jackson, professional golfer Tiger Woods, former NHL hockey star Wayne Gretzky and Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. These are clearly individuals who have been able to do extraordinary physical feats.

Educational Applications 

Gardner and many educators and proponents of his theories say there are ways to foster the growth of kinesthetic intelligence in the classroom by:

  • including role-play activities
  • using manipulatives
  • creating learning centers in the classroom
  • having students create models when appropriate
  • acting out literature or classroom readings
  • making a video presentation for the class

All of these things require movement, rather than sitting at a desk and writing notes or taking paper-and-pencil tests. Gardner's bodily-kinesthetic intelligence theory says that even students who do not ace paper-and-pencil tests can still be considered intelligent. Athletes, dancers, football players, artists, and others can learn effectively in the classroom if teachers recognize their physical intelligence. This creates an entirely new and effective means to reach these students, who may well have bright futures in professions that require a talent for controlling body movements.