Let’s Make it Harder!! Playing and Learning in the Flow

A trampoline makes a fun jumping spot.

A trampoline makes a fun jumping spot.

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?!!”

The Brain Gym® activity cards

The Brain Gym® activity cards

A smooth rock makes a welcome stepping stone.

A smooth rock makes a welcome stepping stone.

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.

We rolled socks into snowballs and drew snowmen faces and hats on paper cups.

We rolled socks into snowballs and drew snowmen faces and hats on paper cups.

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.

We invented "hills" and other imaginary elements to make the path more challenging.

We invented “hills” and other imaginary elements to make the path more challenging.

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.

Movement Grows the Brain

Hey, kids! Here’s a picture for you to take a look at.

dreamstime_m_18894695

Do you know what this picture represents? Yes, it’s the brain—a very important part of the body.

What does the brain do? By itself, not much. You could say it’s a kind of memory-building machine that helps you learn from your experiences.

The brain functions together with the spinal cord (inside your backbone) so you can play and explore the world. Your brain helps you think, and also tells your muscles (via motor neurons) to move however you are able, so you can dance, kick a ball, hold a pencil, or balance on one foot. It builds new memories by helping you remember things you do and create language to code that experience.

Did you know that your brain is always changing? It is constantly sending and receiving messages from your senses and muscles. Every time you see, hear, touch,…move in a new way, you actually grow your brain. Every time you solve a new problem and do something different, you’re expanding your brain.

Do you remember ever learning a new song, like “Row, row, row your boat”? What happened the next time you heard “Row, row . . .”?  Yes, you started humming the tune or singing the words, because it was there in your brain from when you first heard it. This is how the brain grows. It grows memories. One memory builds on another, and memories are connected—by sight, sound, touch, and movement.

When you learn an important new skill, like reading or writing, you use memory pathways that connect different parts of your brain. These pathways are called neural networks, or nerve networks. Like the freeways your parents drive on, these memory connections get more and more familiar and comfortable the more you use them.  Every time you move, your muscles create a flow of nutrients—of oxygen and glucose—that feeds every part of your body. Every time you draw a picture, tell a story about something you did, or read someone else’s story, you connect what you’re doing now with things that you did before—your past experiences.

As a teacher, I developed “Brain Gym”—26 simple activities—to give my students fun ways to see, hear, touch, and move that would enhance their learning. Your brain has pathways to your whole body; when you use your body, you’re using and growing your brain. Do you want to grow your brain right now? Let’s stand on one foot. Are you wobbly? Can you stand on one foot and count to five? Can you do it and count to ten? What about the other foot?

Paul does the Thinking Cap

Paul does the Thinking Cap

Now let’s do the Thinking Cap from the Brain Gym activities. Gently pull back on your ears and slowly unroll them, three times, from top to bottom. Now stand on one foot again. Are you less wobbly this time? Can you stand on one foot and count to a higher number? What about the other foot? Did you feel a difference, even a small one? If not yet, experiment with slowly doing another Brain Gym activity, such as the Cross Crawl, then check your balance again.

You just grew your brain for the skill of balancing, and you can use movement to help grow your brain for other skills too. Remember, learning is a process, and the best learning happens when we can match what we want to learn with how we want to move once we’ve learned it. Next week, or next month, you’ll probably remember even better how to hold your balance. And maybe by then you’ll be doing even more things with your improved stability, like balancing better and better when you ride your bicycle!

 

Photo Credit: ID 18894695 ©  | Dreamstime.com

The Thinking Cap is one of 26 Brain Gym® activities described in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, © 2010.  An experiential, movement-based approach to learning, including the Edu-K balance process and the 26, are taught in Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life. 

© 2013; 2016 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in your area.

Life Begins with a Joy of Learning

dreamstime_m_31251723For newborns, life begins with a joy of learning. Parents can see that, for the infant, everything is new and absorbing. Fresh discoveries are made moment by moment. Although a newborn’s brain weighs only about 25 percent of its eventual adult weight, by age three it will have produced billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of synapse connections between these cells. 

Never is the learning curve so steep as it is in the first seven years of life. During these formative years, a child will follow an innate impulse to move their whole body, to creep or crawl, to walk, to skip, to speak a language, to relate to others, to communicate feelings and needs, and to explore and interact with his environment using his eyes, ears, and hands in a total focus of his absorbent mind. His ability to make choices and to move autonomously in relationship to the pull of gravity happens concurrently.

What is learning, then, and how do children actually learn best? Is there any research to show that children learn effectively sitting in a chair at a desk and reading textbooks, or answering test questions, focusing on information, without any apparent personal motivation beyond that of a grade?

The word education comes from the root word “educere,” meaning to lead or draw out. This is not about memorizing or “stamping in” disconnected information. The Brain Gym® approach to learning is through the joy of play and movement activities. The intent is to stabilize the physical skills of learning so that the mental skills can proceed as part of discovering how to think and solve problems within a context of inquiry, practice, and application. It’s the exploratory practice and application that makes learning real and transferable to ever-new learning situations. Such self-initiated learning questions the traditional classroom or homework approach as being inconsistent with modern neuroscience. It turns out that intelligence is not a fixed IQ score; nor is it planted firmly in the brain from birth. Rather, it forms and develops through the entire lifetime.

The fascinating science of neuroplasticity, intensively researched for two decades, shows that natural, self-motivated learning literally grows the brain. According to author, neurologist, and educator Judy Willis, neuroplasticity is best understood as the selective organization of neuronal connections. This means that when people physically practice an activity or access a memory, their neural networks—groups of neurons that fire together, creating electrochemical pathways—shape themselves according to that activity or memory. These brain pathways are like a system of freeways connecting various cities: the more “automobiles” traveling to a certain destination, the wider the “road” that carries them.

Neuroscientists have been chorusing “Cells that fire together, wire together” since the late 1990s, meaning that if you perform a task or recall some information that causes different neurons to fire in concert, it strengthens the connections between those cells. Over time, the connections become strong, hardy systems that link various parts of the brain, and stimulating one neuron in the sequence is likely to trigger the next one to fire. Thus, says Judy Willis, “When you help your child grow in skills, strategies, and higher levels of thinking, he becomes increasingly engaged in learning, in and out of school. . . . Positive expectancy changes brain neurochemistry, which increases your child’s brain growth and development.*

In advancing the Brain Gym model, I drew from the work of respected educators who had studied the growth of the natural learner for many years. Those pioneers in the field of education, including Marie Montessori, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, John Holt, and William Glasser, all understood that the child is the curriculum, and is always more important than any subject matter to be memorized. This is especially so now, when any inquisitive child who wishes to pursue her own self-initiated inquiry can find such information on the Internet.

When young children go to school, they most often take with them their initial passion for learning. Those who have had rich experiences of whole-body movement and hand-eye exploration have an advantage over those that are less prepared to sit still and think. For children who are ready, the new knowledge and experiences that might await them there can feel like a thrilling prospect. Most youngsters want to learn and do their best in school. Some successfully maintain their enthusiasm for learning through the school years and even through life. Such students tend to become leaders who radiate their love of life.

Unfortunately, through tests, report cards, and comparisons to others, all too many lose that joy of learning, living in a constant state of fight or flight that affects not only muscular tension but also sensory abilities. They might struggle with the physical skills of sitting, eye-teaming to read, or relaxing the hand to write, and might not get the coaching they need from their parents or teachers. For various such reasons, discouragement sets in. “I hate school” becomes associated with the learning process. In a world of abundant opportunity, far too many children give up on themselves and hold back from taking the risk to do their best.

Once the stress reflex has limited a child’s natural joy of learning through movement and play, how can adults help to restore it? As parents and teachers, we need to notice the signs that children are becoming stressed or discouraged and be there for them, supporting them to restore curiosity and engagement as they move, play, stumble, get up again, and reach for the novel and stimulating experiences upon which they can build their learning. We can guide them to cultivate sensory modalities, rather than override them by excessing sitting or near-point focus. As the adults in their world, we must model for them our own love of movement and learning and the risk-taking that expands our own horizons. Are we increasing our capabilities? Are we growing ourselves and our own brains? Are we excited about life? Or have we allowed ourselves to keep repeating the same movement patterns, thoughts, and negative attitudes—just to survive? If we’re simply surviving, we might actually be moving backward rather than forward. Life is a process of growth and discovery, not maintenance of the status quo.

I envision a learning environment connected with the senses, nature, and the community, where pleasure, critical thinking, high self-esteem, and lifelong learning are honored as capabilities of each and every child.  A child-centered education draws out and builds upon prior experience and knowledge. I believe that children are better at constructing their own knowledge than we will ever be at knowing how to break what they need down into subjects and sequences and lessons that they must tediously work through in order to emerge at the end educated. For this reason, play and the freedom to move and explore are paramount.

 

*Willis, Judy. How Your Child Learns Best: Brain Friendly Strategies You Can Use to Ignite Your Child’s Learning and Increase School Success, © 2008, Sourcebook, Inc., p. 275.

Photo ID 31251723 ©  | Dreamstime.com, used with permission.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in your area.

 

Going Outdoors with Your Child to Share Visual Beauty

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-child-observing-tulips-garden-image9054535Vision is a learned skill of attention. It happens not in the eyes alone, but in the brain. Children don’t automatically know how to interpret the visual world. As parents, we can draw their attention to what excites and interests us. Discovering the beauty in the multitude of colors and shapes in nature brings joy to the early years and allows for much parent-child bonding. Even a few minutes in the outdoors, with its lovely trees, flowers, and growing things, provides many more near/far images, variations in color, and ambient shapes and surfaces than are seen indoors.

When we explore the endless nuances of motion and form in our nature experience, letting ourselves be surprised by what we see, we access different visual skills than when we look by habit alone. In his insightful book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Dr. Richard Louv* reports on some of the benefits of outdoor play to children’s sensory and visual development, as well as ways that nature ignites an innate sense of awe and curiosity.

As you step outside with your children, play, move, and spend time with them discovering the wonders of nature, you can guide them in a matter of minutes to develop many skills of attention, including these 7 often overlooked visual skills:

  • centralized focus as they gaze at the center and radiating petals of a flower
  •  following movement with their eyes, as you point out a flock of birds taking flight
  • enjoying distance vision by looking at mountains and horizons
  • discovering ambient shapes, like cloud formations . . . could it be a puppy, a lamb, a giant?
  • using depth perception: by measuring off the steps between near and far objects, like the distance between stones along a garden pathway.
  • distinguishing variegated color: admiring a plant and seeing how many colors you can notice in its stalk and leaves . . . if you were to paint it, what color combinations would you use?
  • identifying similarities: play identification games to help them see things and also build their vocabulary, as in playing “I Spy” with shapes (triangles; circles) or colors (sometimes, we can better see what we can name!).

According to the Journal of the American Optometric Association, 80 percent of classroom learning is based on vision. Yet much of this learning is oriented to left-right, near-point focus on a flat plane—a book, iPad, or writing paper. In a study done by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, researchers found that time spent outdoors correlated with a reduction in children’s risk for nearsightedness. Being in nature calls on less well-known attributes, as well as the skimming and scanning so essential to reading. And, as children explore the world, their eyes develop many further valuable skills that will bring joy and delight for a lifetime. Yours will, too!

 

* Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, North Carolina: 2005. Louv cites research showing children’s gains in emotional, attentional, sensorimotor, and other abilities in the presence of the natural world.

**American Academy of Ophthalmology. “More time outdoors may reduce kids’ risk for nearsightedness, research suggests.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 October 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111024084639.htm>

***The Edu-K Visioncircles course, developed by Gail, offers play and exploration along with 34 Vision Gym® activities to experientially develop these 7 visual abilities along with many other visual and sensorimotor skills. Click here to visit Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation for the name of a Visioncircles instructor in your area.

© 2013 by Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.

Photo © Skoric | Dreamstime.com

 

Movement-Based Learning at the 2013 Touch for Health Conference

Paul_Gail_0511_web5On Saturday, August 3, at the invitation of author and instructor trainer, Matthew Thie, the director of Touch for Health Education, the two of us had the privilege of presenting at the 38th annual Touch for Health Conference, held this year at the Serra Retreat in Malibu, California. Among the 100 plus participants we saw old friends and made new ones from near and far-flung areas of the world. What an honoring of the legacy of Dr. John Thie, who developed the Touch for Health program! We were inspired by chiropractor Sheldon Deal, who introduced valuable new techniques for calming the brain as he spoke of a life of service as the key to vitality and well-being. We were honored to be part of a panel discussion with Touch for Health colleagues on the future of teaching through movement, touch, and balance.

In our own presentation, we invited participants to experience their skill at balancing on one-leg, both before and after doing some Brain Gym® activities. Many thanked us afterwards for this simple yet surprising demonstration of the power of learning through balance and motor skills. We shared with the group how we’re realizing our dream of seeing movement-based learning unfold as a worldwide reality.

We explained that many people understand education as declarative only: the taking in of information. Yet without procedural knowledge, students are unable to put new learning into action. So one essential task of skilled teaching is to create harmony between declarative and procedural knowledge. Learners access declarative knowledge by use of words . . . by reading, thinking, and conversing.  Yet it’s the procedural knowledge that gives us the physical maps to carry out our thoughts and purposes. So while motivation provides the zeal to declare a goal or intention, movement gives us a map for applying the intention and following through.

Purposeful movements like the 26 Brain Gym® activities improve balance and coordination. For years, a growing body of research has related vestibular balance to school-readiness. Most recently (in 2005), researchers Stoodley, Fawcett, Nicolson, and Stein found an impaired balancing ability in dyslexic children. The One Leg Stand (Schrager, 2001) has been incorporated into a more extensive test battery to identify children who have, or are at risk of having, ADHD, dyslexia, and other specific learning disabilities. Balance beams and balance boards are being widely used by special education teachers to develop balance abilities, for the ability to keep one’s balance is known to be highly correlated with brain integration and reading-readiness. Katy Bowman, an expert on the science of biomechanics emphasizes that, to the extent that balance is lacking, the brain, visual system, and vestibular system have to work harder to compensate. In Edu-K we find that the integrity of the moving physical structure provides a context for the cognitive function necessary for focal attention and new learning.

Moving activates the brain. Dr. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, says in his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, “Exercise boosts brain power. Humans adapted during evolution by constantly moving (both to get food and to avoid predators).” Medina further asserts that people think better in motion.

Movement educators understand learning as a process of using activity, focus, play, and practice to make things ever more real, certain, familiar, and functional. They guide children in moving through a learning cycle that begins with an experience of openness to novelty (a goal). The next step is, through play or imagination, to perform a new function with the intention to master it. The teacher assists the learner in making a match between his goal and a previously learned skill (or familiar context) from which to move. The cycle is completed as the new skill is coded through words and expression until it becomes familiar and easy to recall. Finally, celebration of the learning provides a successful context for ever further growth. At any given moment, the teacher can lead the learner to a happy medium between exploring on his own and connecting with the group; both essential elements to the learning process.

What holds meaning and interest for learners is what will claim their attention. The learner’s entire experience consists of the places to which he directs his attention and the resultant neuropathways created in order for him to physically, mentally, and emotionally convey himself to those places. Ideally, the focuses he selects—as a self-initiating learner—will enhance his world and influence him to feel at ease and connected with others. True education is not about deficit management. Any learning challenge is recognized as the effect of effort still in motion toward a skill that has yet to be fully learned.

 

This blog is adapted from an article: “Movement-Based Learning for Life” by Paul and Gail Dennison, published in the Touch for Health 38th Annual Conference papers.

For more about balance and learning, see Paul’s article: Stand Up . . . Sit Down . . . Can You Do It?

© 2013 by Paul and Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

 

 

 

 

 

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