The brain loves the challenge of a new adventure. However, making a healthy effort that calls for moving and thinking in new ways is quite different from the strain of trying—of working beyond our means and ability. I recently had a good reminder of this when my grandchildren were here for a family visit.
As often happens, the 5- and 10-year old soon got busy building an ever-more elaborate obstacle course. End-to-end, they laid out cushions, large stones, yoga blocks, half-domes (we like to use them with the tipsy side up), a Wiggle Seat (Balance Cushion)—all things that work well for such purposes. The children quickly created an intriguing pathway across the rumpus room and back. The two of them clambered along the uneven trail, as I followed along. “Let’s do it again,” they’d say, and so we did. Soon, though, they began chiming: “Grandma, how can we make it harder?!!”
Little by little, we shifted the path to make way for an imagined story behind our journey—small “hills” and hurdles for crawling over (a toy chest, footstool, and trampoline), and a “river” (a pool noodle) to cross. Over the course of the afternoon, with the wish to make it harder still, we added stations: a place for throwing sock snowballs at snowmen* faces that we had crafted, and a spot for pulling a Brain Gym® activity card** and doing the pictured activity as part of our play. As we became more sure-footed, we also improved our balance, strength, agility, and more. I enjoyed seeing the children creatively challenge their motor skills, while connecting through movement and play.
In the Edu-K Learning Flow, Paul and I identify two phases of learning that ideally work together, like the two sides of a Lazy 8, in a continual interplay. We call these the “Getting it!” and “Got it…” phases of the learning state. In the Getting it phase, learners identify the patterns of an experience (such as the shape, weight, texture of items in our obstacle course) that give rise to new habits of function (in this case, how to find our balance with each item as we walked and moved). Through language and picture symbols, learners code the experience sequentially, breaking it down into steps and planning ways to do it again. All of this phase takes turns moment by moment with the satisfying Got it! of practice and repetition that provides a learned, safe context of familiarity, connectedness, and big picture synthesis. The interplay of these two phases evokes skilled learning that feels anchored to the safe and familiar while inviting new explorations. Our grandchildren were living out these phases through their requests of “Let’s do it again” and then, “Let’s make it harder,” as the cycle repeated itself during our play.
Many people, when they consider what it means to learn, think only of the Getting it aspect of analysis and one-step-at-a time information processing. This stage of “breaking things apart” has its place in the learning flow, yet observation of how toddlers and young children naturally learn through whole-body movement and big-picture play reminds us that it’s teaching to the Got it! stage of movement, association, and whole-to-parts thinking, that keeps learners in an exploratory mode. They then, automatically–on their own–enter the Getting it phase that makes new learning quick, stress-free, and immediately familiar, repeatable by its coding through language and motor planning.
In the early 1980s, we began helping learners to notice when they fall out of the learning state into a “stuck” or stressed experience, such as feeling upset, bored, scared, tense—wanting to quit, or not being able to stop (or sometimes even to get started!), and how to get back to the continuum of Got it! and Getting it that anchors learning to movement and the senses. Although one might learn some bits of information in the stuck, unintegrated states, the high level of stress ensures that not much real learning can happen here. The brain needs access to memory, association, and the senses in order to code new information and make it applicable, for now and for later, through movement.
It’s the integration of the Getting it and Got it! phases that provide the Aha! of discovery—the thrill and joy of learning that is exhilarating and euphoric. Learners soon get bored if they stay in the Got it! phase too long, repeating the same experience without novelty (as quickly happened with our obstacle course). Similarly, when learners keep cycling through the Getting it phase and are unable to apply what they imagine and create by achieving the physical mastery of Got it!, they become stressed and anxious. It’s during the Getting it phase that the brain sustains attention by seeking out the details and nuances that deepen, expand, and internalize the learning by making it ever more challenging. While many school programs anchor learning to the Getting it state of analysis and expect children to learn by coding and remembering information alone, the learning cycle is only really complete when thought becomes action through the Got it! phase.
When we learn through movement, our physical patterns provide the Got its! of the familiar and known information—the procedural knowledge and motor skills that we must build upon for new applications. The declarative knowledge of Getting it!—the pausing to think, step-by-step to figure it all out or to add new information—then occurs within the context of movement and exploration. For active learners, this weaving together of Got it! and Getting it . . . occurs almost simultaneously in a continuum of growth, imagination, and creativity.
*Click here for instructions on how to make the Snowman Slam game, from writer Crystal Underwood of Growing a Jeweled Rose.
**The Brain Gym activity cards: For our obstacle course, we used only the cards for the Cross Crawl, the Thinking Cap, and the Energy Yawn—three of the simplest activities. We also sometimes use cards from the Vision Gym®.
Note: Additional stations that we sometimes use include: a place from which to aim and throw soft small balls into a basket, and a spot from which to, with our toes, pick up scarves or ribbons and drop them into a container.
The Brain Gym® activities are from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, ©2010; for more about the Learning Flow, see pages 18-19.
For more about this view of the brain and its functions, see Dr. Ian McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2010); or this RSAnimate review. See also Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Basic Books (2008). We credit the work of pioneering educator Maria Montessori for first pointing us toward this understanding of the self-initiating learner.
© 2013 by Gail 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.