For 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 © Waldru | 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.
Vision 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.
Yesterday Paul and I took our nine-year old granddaughter for a lovely walk at the park. We paused to watch her play on the swings and the monkey bars, enjoying the great feeling of being out in the fresh spring air and sunshine, enjoying nature.
We walked slowly by a stand of eucalyptus trees where we often see the monarch butterflies as they overwinter* on their way to Mexico. It’s a little late in the season for them, but we walked expectantly along that path, anyway.
The three of us sat on a bench to observe the trees. Suddenly, our granddaughter saw a single monarch! Then another, and another! As one flew overhead, she ran to a fence and jumped up onto the low rung to see it better. She spotted one closeby and then showed us another deep in the leaves, then two together. Soon she had counted sixteen. A beautiful Tiger Swallowtail glided on the wind, just out of reach above our heads. We were delighted by the graceful motion of this large yellow butterfly with its angular wings of yellow and black striped markings.
My granddaughter began running after one and then another butterfly, as though she could catch up with them, completely absorbed in the splendor of the moment.
After awhile, I shared with her that when I was about her age, one day my mother and I were standing in the backyard and saw a monarch flying near us. My mother then taught me how to beckon it, saying: “Gail, stand very still and silently call the butterfly to you.” She stood quietly, holding her arms out, palms up, and in a moment the butterfly landed on her hand. It sunned its wings, then flew to my hair. As I silently thought of the butterfly, I felt that I was more quiet inside than I had ever before experienced. I remember the subtle sensation of having this magical creature alight on my head, and the delicate touch of its feet when it landed later on my arm.
Our granddaughter liked the idea of having a butterfly fly down to her, and opened her arms out hopefully. We both began calling silently to the butterfly, tracking its motions. However, my granddaughter was so excited that she was barely able to stay still for a moment. She would close her eyes and concentrate, then give a small twitch or even a twirl or leap when she looked around again for the butterfly. This continued for some time.
As often happens when I’ve done this exercise, a butterfly seemed to take interest in us. It flew down to the ground near where we were standing and rested there for quite some time, its wings becoming muted and almost invisible against the leaves, then brightening again as they opened in the late afternoon sun. Even though the butterfly didn’t land on us, we were completely content to have this close and magical connection.
How to Do the Activity
Among the many dance-like menu items in our Movement Dynamics course, we include the activity Calling Butterflies. This wonderful, quieting movement can bring our attention to the nerve endings in the skin. It teaches us to notice the tactility of this largest organ of the body, and also engages us in active waiting, softening, and listening
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees soft. Your hands and arms are turned outward (externally rotated), somewhat in front and to the sides of your body, palms forward and elbows bent.
Imagine you’re in a butterfly grove. Listen for the sound of butterfly wings, putting your attention on your skin as you feel for where the butterflies might land. Relax your face and allow your arms, hands, and fingers to relax, as though floating. Breathe smoothly and quietly. Let yourself feel weightless and still on the outside, yet active and moving on the inside, waiting for the butterflies to alight.**
~ ~ ~
I have no idea how my mother learned to call butterflies, but I never questioned the directions she gave me with such clarity. And many people who have learned this activity from me have written to say that they were able to call butterflies to land on them in this way.
*The monarchs start arriving at the California coast in late September or early October and begin to form clusters by November—a magical sight to behold. The butterflies remain through the winter. They begin mating in February and leave soon after.
**From the course manual Movement Dynamics: Including Movement Dynamics: Exploring Three Dimensions and Movement Dynamics Flow Medleys, © 2009 by Gail E. Dennison and Paul E. Dennison. For more information about this course or other Edu-K activities, visit Brain Gym(R) International at www.braingym.org.
I woke up not feeling great. So, in the spirit of transitioning to a new year, I decided to do a review of some of my favorite remembrances. It was quite chilly in the house so I turned on the heater, went back to bed, and cozied up under the blankets in such a way that I could do the Positive Points (see below), one of the 26 Brain Gym® activities, while I rested. I meant to think about my family of origin and scenes from my childhood, but really had nothing particular in mind except self-regeneration.
Almost the moment my pulses started to synchronize, I saw a sweeping, crystal-clear image of the San Gabriel Mountains that day after day came into view for me as I looked out the dining room windows of my childhood home. These majestic mountains with their deep blue, brown, and white crevasses appeared to me with a larger-than-life beauty, like old friends reassuring me of their constancy. I then saw them from another angle: as I walked the few blocks to my elementary school they always danced along with me behind the tall pines on the corner.
Next I found myself looking up at the pines themselves. Completely black and swaying, they pointed upward into the summer night sky as I took my turn being pulled along in the red wagon by my mother. Then I saw our first family visit to the regional park in San Dimas Canyon. I saw Mom spreading a picnic blanket under the trees and placing my baby sister there, and heard Dad’s enthusiasm as he let us kids know that he had procured a motorboat. The canyon was filled with wonderful echoing sounds—of birdsong, of wind in the trees and the lapping of water, of nature. Out on the water with my father, sister, and brother, I felt the boat’s slow rocking, the silver ripples of the lake moving us rhythmically.
These lovely multisensory visions continued for five to ten minutes—images of the giant redwood trees, the ocean lit by a rising sun, falling stars in the desert’s vast night sky, and finally the giant eucalyptus trees that stood next door to our house. As I opened my eyes, my body was permeated by a wonderful feeling of calm nurturance and gratitude to my parents for the precious ways in which they gave me a lasting connection to nature. I’m so grateful, too, to have the Positive Points to allow me to reflect on—and deepen—my sensory memories.
To do the Positive Points: With the fingertips of your two hands, lightly hold the two points halfway between your hairline and your eyebrows, above the center of each eye. Use only enough pressure to pull taut the slackness of the skin. You may feel a neurovascular pulse at each point; allow these points to synchronize. Explore using this process to release stress, enhance memory, or build sensory images, as described above (such sensory rehearsal supports skills of comprehension).
For more information, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, or go to www.braingym.org to find a Brain Gym Instructor in your area.
© 2013 by Gail E. Dennison. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.