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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tyler, a third-year college student, summarized his recent private session with me in this way: “I’m thinking about the midterm now without having a knot in my stomach. I can see that it’s only a test—no problem. I know the material in a new way.”
According to the American Dream 2.0* report, 46 percent of college students fail to graduate within six years. Many of these are gifted individuals with much to offer society, yet apparently the stress of competing in an academic environment with tedious reading assignments, driving demands for term papers, and the need to cram for comprehensive exams can be so overwhelming that it breaks the spirit of many.
Tyler was referred to me by his college advisor, who had suggested that a Brain Gym® session might help him get back on track with his academic program. On the phone, Tyler said he had been an all “A” student who consistently did well in his reading and test scores throughout high school and his first college years. Adept at using his iPad and computer, and a fast typist, he had recently hit an impasse and was rereading his nightly assignments two or three times in order to understand and remember the material.
When Tyler arrived for his session, he explained that in the last few weeks he had felt tense and often unable to sleep at night. Before exams, he needed to stay up all night rereading his books and cramming, yet when an exam was in front of him he often couldn’t think what to write: “It’s like my brain shuts off and I can’t think or remember.”
Tyler’s goal for the session was to enjoy his studies and remember what he learned, especially during tests. I asked him to read aloud from one of his history textbooks. He read the words without thinking, and then was unable to tell me in his own words about what he’d read.
I used Edu-K’s 5-Steps to Easy Learning, including seven in-depth assessments, to help Tyler become aware of key aspects of his sensorimotor intelligence. Surprisingly, he was able to cross the midline, which is usually the challenge for readers who word call without thinking. The mechanics of information processing were easy for Tyler. Clearly he had integrated the physical skills for reading, yet he was still finding challenges in meeting the demands of the academic world.
Next I asked Tyler to think of his examinations. He immediately held his breath, and then said he was breaking out in a cold sweat.
“Tyler,” I said, “I can see that you’re bright and capable. Is it possible that the stress at school is getting to you to the point of shutting down your senses and your ability to physically participate?” Tyler agreed that this was a concern for him, and that he had lately become fearful about his memory and his health.
I responded: “Do you get that when your stress level goes up, your ability to think goes out?” I explained that when we’re anxious, often we can’t think and remember because the sympathetic nervous system is preparing us physiologically for a life-threatening danger, like a grizzly bear. We have no time to reflect on the situation or analyze it. We must be ready to either fight for our life or run away. Only when we’ve restored the ability to logically process our circumstances can we let go of the negative stress that we no longer need, coming back to a state of body/mind integration that lets us play, laugh, relate to others, and experience the pleasure inherent in our work.
After he did several Brain Gym activities, the big “aha” came for Tyler when I asked him to think of a test again while holding his Positive Points with his fingertips. The Positive Points are two places on the forehead, above the center of each eye and midway between the hairline and eyebrows. Behind these points are the prefrontal poles, the foremost points of the prefrontal cortex—locus of the executive functions of planning, choice making, and intentional social behavior.
According to John Ratey, MD, and neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg, when the prefrontal cortex is engaged, it helps to regulate the fight-or-flight hyperarousal response.** Holding the Positive Points for a minute or two increases the vascular pulsations (which are palpable) in this area.
After his Positive Points process, Tyler laughed and said that he felt like he was back in his body.
“What happens now when you think of the test?” I asked. Tyler responded, “It’s no big deal. When I did the Positive Points, I could feel my thoughts getting organized in a more cohesive way.”
As Tyler read for a second time, he was anticipating where the text was leading, and afterward his summary showed good comprehension. He commented that he could also now feel the movement of his body, which he had somehow not been doing for a long time (sensation often diminishes during a long-term stress response).
For homeplay, I taught Tyler two more activities from the Brain Gym 26***—Hook-ups and Balance Buttons—that he agreed he could use in calming himself back in the classroom. The Hook-ups activity helps one to slow down and breathe while experiencing the comforting containment of crossed arms and ankles. Balance Buttons help to release tense neck muscles and reestablish the balance of the head over the torso, and so allow one to feel safe moving in space without losing stability.
“Wow. I’m going to do Hook-ups, Balance Buttons, and the Positive Points every day before I study, and especially before exams,” Tyler declared. “Now I can study without freaking out. Maybe I’ll enjoy learning at the same time. That would be awesome!”
* “The American Dream 2.0” report of January 2013 was created by a coalition of educators and leaders and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more information: http://americandream2-0.com/
**Ratey, John, with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, p.159; Goldberg, Elkhonon, The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 119.
***For more information about the Positive Points, Hook-ups and Balance Buttons, as well as the other Brain Gym activities, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Paul and Gail Dennison, © 2010. To see a photo of the Positive Points and description of how to do the activity, click here.
The photo is © Anniwalz | Dreamstime.com, used with permission.
© 2013 by Paul 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.
On 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.