Two flower fairies frolic among the play scarves with their fairy dog.
“Each fairy breath of summer, as it blows with loveliness, inspires the blushing rose.”—Author unknown
I recently lifted the cover of my piano to find a row of pipe-cleaner fairies (some pictured here) resting on the high-note keys, with their “leaf wings” removed and carefully laid at their sides. I’m not sure what the story was, but the possibilities made me smile.
Optometrist G.N. Getman once said, “Vision is a learned skill of attention.” Since I have a passion for facilitating visual skills, I like to remind students that vision is primarily a habit, and that to shift our habits, we must choose to see something new out of the countless possibilities that call our attention every moment. Being outside is a wonderful way to rediscover our vision, as myriad points of light shimmer and dance over moving leaves and plants.
And another way is to imagine the fairy realm. Simply reimagining the landscape as one in which fairies move, dance, and glide from one thing to another, hovering or alighting, (as our eyes ideally do) gives us pause to see the microcosm of nature—to soft-focus our eyes and look anew at the rich and variegated world of shape, color, texture, form, and motion.
My two granddaughters (the youngest then 8) and I began making these wonderful fairies a few years back using fabric scraps and other things we keep in our craft box. Ever since, making and playing with these homemade friends has provided one way to deepen our imaginative play together as well as providing them with hours of creative pleasure on their own.
I find that when a child plays with such a calming and butterfly-like personage, especially one they’ve made themselves, they don’t need to be taught anything in particular about visual skills. They’ll naturally make hand motions that engage the eyes in tracking side-to-side, up-and-down, at diagonals, and near-to-far. They’ll relax their eyes as they centralize their play around the body’s midline (rather than off to the right or left, as they might do for reading or writing). I can see how, as they glide the fairies around, they engage their soft focus and the fluid, saccadic eye motion that helps balance modern demands of eye-pointing or overfocus common when reading or doing computer work. Not to mention that playing with the fairies invites that restorative inner world of self-motivated attention and exploration. Here are photos of our fairies and instructions for making:
Two rose petal flower fairies (with wings made of lamb’s ear and camellia leaves).
At right: A mother flower fairy cradles her infant (wrapped in a leaf) while a girl and boy fairy look on. The mother’s sash, made of fabric scrap tied in the back, helps to hold the petals in place. For this photo, they are not wearing their wings.
Smaller fairies with (at left) ficus-leaf wings; (at right), succulent-leaves.
A close-up of the mother and infant.
Back view of mom’s leaf head dress.
If you would like to make your own fairies, here’s how we did it:
Basic items for making a “bendy-stick” leaf fairy.
The Simplest Version – Ages 7 and up
– bendy sticks (also known as pipe cleaners)
– wooden beads for heads
– colored pencils (or non-smear pens) to draw the faces
– pairs of leaves (we used camellia, lamb’s ear, and a succulent, at right, or you can use fabric leaves* as in the photo below)
– glue (to secure the pipe cleaner at the top of the head)
How to do it (most likely, if you show the children a photo and give them materials, they’ll figure it out):
1. Fold a bendy stick to form a torso and legs and feet (fold the legs back on themselves for thickness); or omit the legs and coil another bendy stick around the body to make a skirt; fashion a top if you wish.
2. Use a second bendy stick to make the arms (also folded back); leave enough of the stick on which to place the wooden bead.
3. Leave a little bit sticking out as a neck, on which to place the bead head.
4. Draw a face on the wooden bead (we didn’t always like the faces, so some of these were turned to the back or new beads used so we could redraw).
5. Secure the head by bending a 1/8″ or so piece of the bendy stick across the top of the head (you may wish to glue this)
6. Coil a bendy stick to make hair
Options for Those with More fine-Motor Skill
– fabric rose petals*
– yarn for hair (glue on, or leave more length at the top of the pipe cleaner and use it to fasten the hair; see photos above). Unravel the yarn to create waves or curls.
– string (we used green and brown) for tying the petals on to the skirt
– needle and thread (not shown) for hand-sewing the petals on if you’re so inclined
– long-nosed pliers (I love to show children, when they’re ready to adhere to safety tips, how to use this
wonderful tool. In this case, the long-nosed pliers can be used to cut the pipe cleaners if you want to make them shorter.)
Three flower fairies with their fairy dog (all sans wings at the moment).
If you make fairy dolls, I would love to hear how you and your children play with them.
*We bought the fabric petals and leaves, along with the wooden beads and pipe cleaners, at Michael’s Craft store: www.michaels.com/
For a translation of this article into Spanish or Catalan, click here.
Gail Dennison is the co-creator, with her husband and partner Paul Dennison, of the Educational Kinesiology and Brain Gym® programs. She has also written the courses Visioncircles, Double Doodle Play, and their teacher training—courses that focus on natural vision improvement through movement and play.
Brain Gym® is the registered trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International, Ventura, CA, www.braingym.org. To find a Brain Gym, Visioncircles, or Double Doodle Play Instructor in your area, click here .
Classroom students learn to follow rhythm and vocal pitch while exploring new language skills and enjoying the play state evoked by Education Through Music movement games.
Paul and I are delighted to offer this guest blog from Laura Walter, a workshop leader for Education Through Music (ETM). Laura, a dear friend and fellow advocate of learning through movement and play, first told me about ETM in 2003. Paul and I have since enjoyed exploring in ETM like-minded thinkers and movers, focused on providing play and cross-lateral experiences (walking, skipping, hand-crossing) for self-actualizing learners within a community-building setting. We soon realized that this was the same program that author and educator Joseph Chilton Pearce had recommended that we look into. It turns out that Pearce had recommended the Brain Gym® work to the ETM group, as well, including both programs as experiences he favored for the developing child. We love to play song games with our family members and ETM and other friends, and highly commend this enlivening program. —Gail
When I clap the rhythm to a song, the children listen with close attention and are always delighted to try figuring out which one of the songs we’ve sung together it could be. They eagerly offer ideas and together sing parts of the songs in order to settle on the answer. Then we all leap to our feet to play the corresponding song game as we sing the song.
These young people love singing in canon, and taking turns leading the Solfege hand signs in three parts while listening to how beautiful the combined parts sound. The classroom teachers comment on how interesting it is that, when the children come in to music, they’re attentive and ready to learn. In ETM, all of our motivation is intrinsic: the singing and the playing for its own sake . . . the sound for its beauty. Thus the children come along easily, with regard for each other and regard for the music.
ETM integrates singing with critical thinking games to teach the fundamentals of pitch and rhythm. Through weekly music activities, the song games help students discover skills of pattern recognition, social interaction, and working as a team.
As our society moves into more and more distractions, play and song can bring attention systems into greater focus. Teachers have particularly remarked on how those children who learn better in nontraditional ways, often through movement, are completely immersed in and captivated by the song game activities. Our program lets all participating children feel successful. They all sing and interact, as in this short video.
Patrons of the Ojai Music Festival enjoy a surprise interactive demonstration of ETM led by artist-in-residence Laura Walter and participating students from Ojai schools.
Some of our classes include special-needs children. A boy I’ll call Marco is one such child. He is nonverbal, moving with assistance or very slowly. With his automated talking board, he can touch a response to a question. On many days, the classroom children will choose Marco to have the next turn, and cheer for him as he runs around the circle at his own pace to participate in the game.
When one of the special-needs children is called on to offer an answer, the other children wait patiently to hear it, no matter its possibility of being correct. The kindness in the room is palpable. This is one of the hallmarks of arts education.
At the end of one year, one of the teachers mentioned to me that her class had played and sung ETM games every morning, to set the tone of their day. I told her that many teachers feel they don’t have the time to do that. She said, “They don’t have the time not to do it.”
ETM in a classroom greatly diminishes discipline concerns and impulse-control problems. When we sing and play with such joy, our brains are wiring connections for a productive and successful life.
Laura Walter is the Bravo Education Coordinator for the Ojai Music Festival. She has served on the faculty of Westmont College for more than 20 years. Laura has taught at Wright State University and Miami Valley Music Academy, and has been a featured guest lecturer at the Dayton Philharmonic. Formerly the Executive Director of The Richards Institute of Education and Research, a nonprofit group, she continues working with teachers and children, especially at‐risk youth, using interactive play to develop motivation, intelligence, literacy, and emotional stability. She is the regional coordinator of Education Through Music and leads workshops for teachers to incorporate the arts into the current STEAM philosophy. Her students have gone on to successful careers as musicians, doctors, scientists and major symphony conductors.
For more information see http://www.ojaifestival.org/education/bravo-program/ or www.richardsinstitute.org
The Robot Dog, as my grandson built him.
Our five-year-old grandson recently visited, and we were enjoying all kinds of good play. At one point, he and I looked at the pictures in a book he had about robots, and we saw a colorful drawing of a robot dog. My grandson and I like to make paper crafts that move (automata), and this looked like the perfect thing. “Do you think we could make our own robot dog?” I asked. “We would just need a wheel—maybe a lid from something . . .” He nodded enthusiastically, so I opened the craft box and began sorting through the recycle items; asking him what he thought would work for a body, a head, and so on. He looked up thoughtfully and said: “Oh, I know how Grandma! Do you have some white paper? First I have to write the instructions.”
I know it’s important for youngsters to be able to carry their own creative projects through from the concrete to the abstract, and back again to the concrete. So I quickly put my own ideas aside, letting him guide the project. I got the paper and sat down next to him, listening intently to see how (or if) I would be invited to participate. My grandson began scribing some strange marks on the page. In a few minutes, his “writing” was complete (see his numbered schematic, below).
My grandson’s schematic for the Robot Dog.
He held up his instructions and pointed to each step as he thoughtfully explained it. (Below, I’ve written out my version of his verbal “instructions,” next to the photos of how he implemented them):
Steps 5 & 9, somehow omitted from my above photo.
1. First you need a lid to make the wheel. Use a scissors to poke a hole in the lid. (He found two apple juice lids in the craft box; we put them back to back. Since the scissors wouldn’t work for poking a hole through metal, I got to do that job with a hammer and nail.)
1. Wheel (lid); scissors (upper left) to poke the hole.
2. Next, use a cardboard tube for the dog’s body. Make a slit to put a bendy stick (pipe cleaner) through.
2. Use scissors to make a slit in a cardboard TP tube.
3. Poke the bendy stick through the hole in the wheel and through the slit in the cardboard. (My grandson later changed his mind about the slit, and simply wrapped the pipe cleaner around, instead).
3. Use a bendy stick to attach the wheel to the cardboard tube.
4. Scotch tape 2 straws to his body: one for his neck; one for his tail. Use tape and construction paper to cover one of the holes in the cardboard roll.
4. Tape a straw to the TP tube.
Your Robot Dog will look something like this as you complete steps 1 – 4.
5. Make the Robot Dog’s head out of construction paper; tape it to the straw. Use scotch tape and construction paper to cover the hole at the other end of the cardboard tube.
5. Make the Robot Dog’s head. Add a paper to cover the holes in the TP tube.
6. Make his ears (construction paper).
After making the head and ears (5, 6).
6. Use scissors to make your Robot Dog some ears.
7. For your dog’s tail, use construction paper to make a round circle and tape it to the straw.
7. Make your dog a tail.
Blue construction paper makes a great pom pom for the tail (7).
8. For your Robot Dog’s instrument panel, make three dots on one side of his body.
8. Add 3 dots (the instrument panel).
9. He’s ready to go for a spin!
9. The completed Robot Dog, ready to roll!
Later, my grandson made a bone and bed (below) for his Robot Dog.
Every dog needs a bone.
My grandson told me that he has a new pet goldfish, Rennie, that he won at the fair. “And now,” he said, “I have two pets: Rennie and my Robot Dog!”
A bed for the Robot Dog.
My addendum: My grandson has all the preliteracy skills in place. He loves to move and play. He enjoys conversing. He loves books, likes being read to, and delights in making up his own stories. He likes three-dimensional crafts, and enjoys using his hands and eyes to explore and create things. He has an active imagination: it took him only seconds to visualize how he would make the Robot Dog, and only a few minutes to write out the sequence in his shorthand way—less time than it took to actually make the Robot Dog. He’s curious about making and translating symbols, and knows how to hold a pencil correctly. Our daughter said to be sure to mention that he plays with Legos, and likes to “read” the instructions.
Perhaps most important was that, without any help, he first got the big picture and then was able to use symbols to put his thoughts into a detailed, linear sequence for later reference. In Edu-K and Brain Gym®, this is what we mean by whole-brain learning: the ability to perceive the big picture and be challenged by it while filling in the significant details. When applied to reading, this involves giving youngsters opportunities to have meaningful experiences with language and letting them take ownership of the creative writing process (as my grandson did with his symbols), thereby building a powerful motivation for learning to read and write.
You’ll notice that, although he sometimes reverses numbers, we call no attention to it. This is normal for his age; (in the 3-D world, a chair is still a chair, whether it is facing to the left or to the right.) As he transitions to using abstract symbols for writing, if he continues to reverse numbers, when the time comes, we’ll do a few minutes of Lazy 8s or Alphabet 8s (oriented to numbers) with him, so that he can experience the left/right difference as it applies to 2-D symbols. In any event, our focus is on learning as a synthesizing experience, especially for young learners, rather than an analytic one. Generally speaking, we find it best to let learners follow their creative flow, then hold any discussion of details aside for a separate lesson (such as an Edu-K balance or activity session).
We had fun rolling the Robot Dog around, giving him his bone, and putting him to bed.
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
For more articles on the importance of movement, imagination, and visual skills to beginning literacy, see
Reading Is a Miracle
Independent Reading: A Path to Self-Initiated Learning
How Play Can Nurture the Imaginal World: A Photo Journal
© 2014 by Gail E. Dennison. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor near you.
A spotted dog stands on the rocks, looking out into the distance.
The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. —Albert Einstein
About a month ago, my 10-year old granddaughter, H., came by for her Wednesday after-school visit. As often happens, we sat and talked for awhile, drew pictures, then spent some time playing outdoors. Later in the afternoon, H. became immersed in quiet yet active play in the living room, while I took the opportunity to catch up on my own things.
It seems that the dog is standing guard at a distance, keeping his eye on a thin grey cat and a fluffy white one as they meet next to a bird cage. The cats have positioned themselves atop two strange, mythic creatures (my plant stands).
The two cats face one another and stand their ground.
A day or so after this, I noticed that H. had moved several medium-sized rocks from where I had them in front of the living room fireplace, and had carefully set them up, along with the small figure of a dog, near the window seat (all things she has done before). I started to put these things back in order, but something about their specificity gave me pause. I realized that the dog was positioned to be looking at something a couple of feet away. When I stepped back to get the bigger picture, I was immediately drawn into an imaginal world. (Check out the photos above to see the key features of the scenario that H. had created, and below for those that she added just this week.)
A mythical Griffin (or a mountain?) appears to be a backdrop for the action.
I love playing with my grandchildren. I’m also delighted when I see them involved in their own imaginal play, especially when it reaches beyond the confines of toys and games, and into everyday spaces. I know that adults can support children in crossing the threshold into their inner world by providing a quiet space and making available some simple things, often from nature, that they can explore on their own. When a child can enter that make-believe realm, they discover a place belonging uniquely to them. Here, any found object can take on a new meaning.
The grey cat stands alongside a red dinosaur.
This inner place is not at all a passive rethinking of something seen on a screen. Yes, it might begin with fantasy, but it soon becomes grounded in something else—an active, connected exploration of inner feelings, sensations, and symbols; a way to bring these into greater congruency. It seems to me that it’s this love of an inner sequencing (not necessarily in words) that helps children sort their feelings and explore their place in the world. And it’s this personal “narrative” that will surely call children into the world of reading. In this case, I immediately felt that what I was seeing was the very reason this kind of play is so valuable, and an example of how children love to invent and elaborate their own stories.
Four little chicks rest in a wooden cradle.
So I left the stones and animals there. Nothing happened for awhile and I didn’t think about them. And then this week—some four weeks later—I had the honor of seeing how this timeless saga was continued, as H. played for over an hour in that same location: Here’s a cradle of tiny chicks . . . a robin, sitting at the foot of a Griffin (or is this a mountain?) and carrying a frog on her back as she looks after the chicks. The grey cat has joined a dinosaur on top of the Griffin’s sunglasses—or is that a mountain ledge? And the dog continues to gaze calmly out over it all.
A spotted frog rides on the back of the Robin, as she watches over the chicks.
I have only a glimpse of the world H. was exploring, but can see its signs in this one by the way she uses language, expresses her feelings, coordinates her movement and centralizes her vision as she organizes her play, and in so many other ways. Although all these skills can be taught, as we do through the simple movements of Edu-K and Brain Gym®, it’s also wonderful to learn them first-hand through active explorations of the world around us. I’m confident that this inner world H. is building will continue to hold a motivating fire for reading, writing, and even learning itself. I trust you’ll enjoy the glimpse as I do.
Author’s note: My thoughts on imagination began to take root in a course I developed in 1986 called Visioncircles, where participants explore eight spheres of perceptual awareness, “Internalization” (symbolic representation) being the sixth. (I borrowed this idea of Internalization from psychologist Jean Piaget, who described Internalization as the last of the sensorimotor stage, where toddlers begin to think symbolically, solve motor problems, and use language.
For more about how imagination and symbolic representation contribute to literacy, see I Already Know How to Read: A Child’s View of Literacy, by Prisca Martens.
For more about the play state, see:
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan, 2010;
Playing by Heart: The Vision and Practice of Belonging by O. Fred Donaldson, 1993;
and the classic, Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce, 1992.
© 2014 by Gail E. Dennison. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of a Brain Gym® or Visioncircles instructor near you.
Although Wyatt’s mom brought him to see me because of his learning difficulties, he wasn’t interested in working on that topic. And when I asked this nine-year-old what he would like to work on, he came close to tears.
“Today we played softball,” he explained. I can’t catch the ball, and the other kids never choose me for their team. But I don’t care. I don’t even want to play. I can never think fast enough to know what to do.”
Together, Wyatt and I formulated his goal, for him to play and have more fun with his friends. I explained that, when we’re playing, sometimes our body moves even faster than our brain and we know what to do without thinking.
Wyatt agreed to an experiment: to see if he could learn to trust his body to move without his having to think about what to do next. From a static standing position, I threw the ball to Wyatt with a moderately easy toss. First I threw it in a somewhat high arc, then in a low underhand, and finally in a straight line. He caught the ball awkwardly the first time and missed the next two catches, becoming more discouraged each time.
Wyatt and I were working on developing two kinds of intelligence that are central to Edu-K, as they’re important to a learner’s physical ease and connection with his environment. Educator Thomas Armstrong calls these the Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence and the Spatial Intelligence*. Playing catch, along with doing some Brain Gym® activities, is a great way for both children and adults to awaken attributes associated with these intelligences.
I told Wyatt he was probably analyzing too much and that, as he relaxed, he might discover some new ways to use his eyes and body together as he caught and threw the ball. I let him choose some Brain Gym activities from a poster in my office, and then he and I did the movements together to help him trust his physical responses. We did the Cross Crawl, then Arm Activation, the Footflex, Lazy 8s, and Hook-ups. When Wyatt felt ready to play, we did a post-activity so he could experience his new learning.
This time Wyatt easily caught the ball all three times. I then moved around a bit as I continued throwing it, and he moved in anticipation of catching it. I began to make the throws more challenging. He seemed to know where the ball would be without thinking. He was so excited. We danced around together, jumped up and down, and celebrated the joy of his new accomplishment.
I find that many children, and adults, too, overthink and try too hard instead of trusting their innate movement patterns. I love seeing these learners make the shift from trying too hard to spontaneously doing their best. And I’m confident that a happy and exploratory learner like Wyatt, who knows how to learn, will do well with whatever subject matter is presented to him.
*Educator Howard Gardner did pioneering work on the theory of multiple intelligences in the early 1980s. Thomas Armstrong has interpreted this work in several of his own books, including Seven Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences, Plume, 1999, and Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Achieve Success in School and Life, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2011. Besides the two intelligences named here, Armstrong identifies six others.
The Brain Gym® activities are from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, ©2010.
© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor in your area.
I have greatly enjoyed reflecting this week on the views expressed by educator Randal McChesney in his insightful article for Hearts at Play. In Edu-K courses and private sessions, parents often comment that they’d like to know how to better motivate their children to read and study on their own and otherwise apply themselves in school. In this regard I appreciate how, in the article, Randy weighs the shortcomings of using extrinsic rewards, such as money, to motivate young people, and points to research on intrinsic motivation that shows it to be the best way for children to learn. It’s also, he makes clear, the best way to encourage children to treat one other with respect, regard, and dignity.
In his essay, Randy encourages the development of intrinsic motivations—those behaviors that arise from within the individual, the fire that moves them to interact and to be at play with each new learning challenge before them. In the Edu-K work as in Education Through Music, we see how often movement itself, and especially moving playfully with others, invites intrinsic motivation and authentic learning.
I agree with Randy’s thoughts on how effective learners build their habits of sustained motivation. It’s my intent, when working with Edu-K learners, to help them discover how to initiate motivated behavior by making a personal choice to meet a goal. For a young child having difficulty with reading, this might mean choosing to bring a reading book home from school—even if just to look at the pictures. Intrinsic joy is experienced when the student takes each measured step toward such a realistic intention. The pleasure of learning comes as the child overcomes obstacles toward his goal; for example, when he looks up new vocabulary words as he reads, or asks for a parent’s help, instead of putting the book aside. Such efforts can be seen as the vigor and attentiveness that go into following through, as when he picks up the book again and again until reaching the very last page.
In Edu-K, as in Randy’s work, we celebrate new learning as its own reward. From the pleasure of getting it to the final attainment of got it!, seeing people access their intrinsic motivation for a task is thrilling to behold.
(To read an inspiring blog on how play can develop intrinsic motivation, see the guest blog with Randal McChesney.)
Getting it and got it! are part of the Learning Flow, from Brain Gym(R): Teacher’s Edition.
© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International. Click here to find an instructor in your area.