Mom and Me in a Little Boat of Dreams

Mother and me with "Bogie" at the soda shop in Garden City, Kansas, a place she remembered from her teen years.

Mother and me with “Bogie” at the soda shop in Garden City, Kansas, a place she remembered from her teen years.

I always knew my mother to be a dynamic person who could accomplish anything she set her mind to. A Kansas native who grew up during the dustbowl days and came to California in her twenties, she had an indomitable spirit. Along with being a loving wife to my dad, she created a warm home environment where she was primary caregiver in the raising of my three younger siblings and me.

Mom looked for opportunities to bring beauty to the world. As an artist, she always had a project going. From trimming everyone’s hair to climbing onto the patio roof to prune the avocado tree to shaping myriad plants into a veritable botanical garden; from sewing clothes for us children to refinishing furniture, repainting the house inside and out, and painting murals on the living room walls, she was forever finding ways to add some esthetic quality to life. Mother was my first teacher, evoking a love of reading and drawing early on, always engaging me in projects, and genuinely seeking out my thoughts and ideas.

My mother in front of one of the many murals she painted for various family members. This one of a magnolia branch was a gift for her brother and his wife when they were newlyweds.

My mother in front of one of the many murals she painted for various family members. This one of a magnolia branch was a gift for her brother and his wife when they were newlyweds.

Since I saw my mother as a strong woman and creative thinker, it was hard for me to acknowledge certain changes in her as she grew older. When others expressed concerns about her memory, I didn’t see what they saw. Since I know that change is constant, and since (through my Edu-K experience) I know that learning is available no matter the age or situation, I looked for what new learning I could support in her.

We had always liked to sing or paint together, or to take walks around the house and yard, and I saw that often when she thought she wasn’t up to it, after doing just a few minutes of simple movements with me—the Cross Crawl, the Thinking Cap, the Owl, and Movement Reeducation for feet* were some of her favorites—she would be happy to engage in one of these ways. In her later years, I was grateful to be able to facilitate Edu-K balances: helping her to make small improvements in her vision, release neck or shoulder tension, and stabilize her equilibrium in the context of a playful goal. I valued how, many times after doing a few of such activities, she immediately responded by letting go of frustrations, reminiscing more, and participating more playfully with me.

Mother and me when she was 80, in front of the elephant exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo.

Mother and me when she was 80, in front of the elephant exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo.

Yet we lived some distance apart, and as time went on I saw that my visits with my mother weren’t frequent enough to offset her now-sedentary lifestyle: after my dad’s death, the challenges of living alone in a rapidly changing world (and later, the challenges of having a care-giver nearby), and the stress of keeping up the house and garden.

In our phone calls, Mom often seemed stressed, distant, or disheartened, and sometimes she couldn’t seem to recall the conversational topic from a moment ago.

In her aging process, my mother went through a period of frustration and feistiness related to all the losses in her life about which she could do nothing—in particular, she talked about her loss of the strength and resources to be as self-sufficient as she had once been. Then she suddenly stopped talking about her problems or saying anything about how various family members should live their lives. She seemed to retreat and become more of a quiet onlooker. I couldn’t tell if she was having difficulty remembering or was simply no longer able to attend to a structured conversation. I was grateful to be able to do balances** to maintain my own wellbeing, and I found that these brought me continued new ways to connect with her.

After a while, Mom seemed to become an accepting observer of her own suffering, and perhaps the suffering of others as well. She began to empty herself of her everyday concerns and put her attention on something larger—perhaps on the wholeness of her life and the lives of her children.

I asked her once about this change, and she responded, “It’s not something I can tell you about, Gail. But you’ll see for yourself as you grow older.” It has made me wonder how much of memory loss is a choice to behave in a new way—a choice that may not be understood or supported by family members.

Mom, with her brother's assistance, delightedly climbed into the old  John Deere combine and looked off into the distance, as though across the wheat field, as I knew she'd done with her dad countless times in her childhood.

Mom, with her brother’s assistance, delightedly climbed into the old John Deere combine and looked off into the distance, as though across the wheat field, as I knew she’d done with her dad countless times in her childhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mom often asked about her family in Kalvesta, Kansas, and for her 80th birthday my son and I decided to take her to her early home for a visit. We had a rich and fulfilling experience, enlivened by Mom’s stories and recollections from every aspect of her childhood. We all enjoyed visiting with relatives and taking some great photos, like the one of Mom pretending to drive her dad’s old combine. I could picture her as a freckle-faced 10-year old, playing with her siblings and friends, and helping her folks maintain the farm.

Yet, on a phone call just days after our return, my mother implored me to take her on a visit to Kansas as though we had never gone. In that moment, perhaps due to my staying centered with such activities as Hook-ups and the Positive Points, I was able to override my inclination to correct her  and respond instead by saying, “Mom, you want to spend time in Kansas, and I like to write. Let’s write a book together about your experiences growing up in Kansas.” I think I imagined that I would hear a story or two that I hadn’t yet heard. Without hesitating, Mom responded, “Okay. Well, it should begin like this:”

What I remember most about growing up in Kansas is looking out over the vast, vast country, as far as I could see, and watching the fields of ripe wheat blowing back and forth. The wind would sometimes push the wheat till it lay right down on the ground, and then lay it down the other way, or blow it in circles—the golden tassels just whirling in the wind.

The wind was always an important presence in our lives—blowing our hair, our hats, and our dresses. For people who have never seen Kansas, a state right in the center of the United States, it might be hard to believe what it was like there in the 1920s and 1930s. Not everybody could understand Kansas, and many wouldn’t like it.

The golden wheat fields of Kalvesta, Kansas, after the fall harvest. Post-harvest, when everyone gets to relax, proved to be a good time for our visit.

The golden wheat fields of Kalvesta, Kansas, after the fall harvest. Post-harvest, when everyone gets to relax, proved to be a good time for our visit.

Tears filled my eyes as I scribbled verbatim notes as fast as I could write. Remarkably, for this moment my mom was no longer withdrawn or at a loss for words. She had apparently been waiting to tell this new version of her story, and she told it as quickly and eloquently as if she were reading it aloud.

The windmill at Mom's childhood home.

The windmill at Mom’s childhood home.

After this, each time I called my mother I would do some Brain Gym activities, with the intention of being able to stay present with her and draw out more of her story. I would briefly catch her up on family events. She might at first seem not to remember about the book, yet as I read back to her some of what we had written and held that attitude of inquiry, she would most often continue her narrative with enthusiasm.

Within a few months we had completed a small, wonderful book—one that I treasure still as one of Mom’s great gifts to the family. Even more valuable to me was the bond that we deepened as she shared her thoughts and stories.

On one of her visits with me, Mom had some difficulty in walking, and needed to lean against me in order to get around. I figured out that her medication was affecting her equilibrium, and asked the doctor if I could wean her off of it. He agreed.

In the few days of her visit, we did Brain Buttons, the Thinking Cap, Balance Buttons, and Hook-ups together, as well as a lot of cross-crawling. Without the medication, Mom had some difficult moments of anger, despair, and irritation. Yet, each time, I was able to assist her in using the activities to calm herself, access greater strength and balance, and put any concerns into words. Within the first half a day, she was walking with a steadiness and vigor that I hadn’t seen for a while.

I also discovered that if Mom sat on a stool with her back to me, in front of the chair I was sitting in, I could wrap my arms around her, crossing her arms over her chest, and rock her very slowly from side to side in the My Little Boat*** movement. She found this soothing and restorative, and would sometimes hum as we rocked, as if she were rocking me. We would both quickly became more centered and connected; sometimes she would doze off and I would simply hold her hand.

Over the next couple of years, this activity became one of my favorites to do with Mom. It offered us many restorative moments, and afterward our visit would be characterized by the kind of conversation and relating that we both found so fulfilling. 

 

* The Brain Gym® activities mentioned here are from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, (c) 2010; Movement Reeducation for feet is from the course Educational Kinesiology in Depth: Seven Dimensions of Intelligence.

**An Edu-K balance offers five steps to easy learning. The balance process, along with 11 Action Balances and the 26 Brain Gym® activities, are all taught in the introductory course Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Live (see instructor link below).

***The My Little Boat** activity is one of the twelve Integrated Movements from Educational Kinesiology in Depth: Seven Dimensions of Intelligence.

© 2013 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.

Eyes and Ears on a Scavenger Hunt!

A view down the street.

A view down the street.

My 10-year old granddaughter and I were hanging out after school. I could see that she wasn’t yet interested in starting her homework on this bright, wintry California afternoon, and I wanted to invite some movement first, anyway, as she’d been sitting all day. “What shall we do next?” I asked, starting to name some favorite out door activities: “Play ball? Make an obstacle course? Go on a scavenger hunt…”

“A scavenger hunt!” she said, lighting up. “Let’s go for a walk and find things.” I didn’t have a pre-made list, so I proposed to write out a list of 20 items for her to find. She said that she’d make 20 for me to find, as well, and I could tell by her smile that she was already thinking up some good ones.

We both laughed as we heard, outside, a crow cawing, seeming to signal a starting point. We each took an index card and pencil. On my card I wrote: A talking crow. She wrote: A long piece of grass. We wrote quickly. H paused just to ask about spellings. We glanced at each other’s cards only once or twice, then completed our lists and, in no time, were ready to go. We got into PACE*, did The Thinking Cap, and started out meandering around the block. Everything seemed fresh and new. I was looking for the first item H had written on my list: A piece of long grass! But all the grass appeared freshly mown.

“Grandma, do you see any kind of red leaf ?” H was asking. She then ran toward an ornamental pear tree to show me its luminous red and gold leaves beneath. We oohed and aahed over the colors.

A red leaf from an ornamental pear tree.

A red leaf from an ornamental pear tree.

“What about a blue house. Do you know if there’s one around here?” I pointed to a bluish-gray house nearby. “No. That’s not blue enough. That one should be yours.” (My own list included a gray house, which I quickly marked off!)

From behind a fence, a dog barked. I looked at my card. A barking dog. “Can I count that dog even though I can’t see it?” I asked. “Sure!” H responded generously. “Look, Grandma. A piece of long grass!” We were now clearly partners on this particular hunt, together seeking items on our lists. We were both slowly looking high and low and all around: Our senses were heightened as we watched and listened for clues to find more items. We compared our lists:

A cat and butterfly decoration works for us both.

A cat and butterfly decoration works for us both.

Next on H’s List

A talking bird
A butterfly
A birch tree
A flower smaller than your thumbnail 

Next on My List
A white cat
A black dog
A statue
A red flower (extra points for a rose)

A white birch tree in winter.

A white birch tree in winter.

After a fruitless search for a white cat we know, we found a silhouetted sculpture of a black cat catching a butterfly, and decided that could work for both of us.

“Grandma, where can I find a birch tree?” H asked next. I explained that we were looking for a tall, slender tree with diamond-shaped “eyes” on its white, papery bark. In the air I drew an upward arch with my hand as I described its flowing branches. Looking around, H pointed down the street. “Oh, I know. Is that one?” We walked closer to see. Yes. I told H that a birch tree is sometimes called “The Watchful Tree” because of its eyes, and is also sometimes called “The graceful lady of the wood,”  though in winter, she drops all her leaves and is rather plain.

She used her thumbnail to measure a tiny flower.

She used her thumbnail to measure a tiny flower.

Next, H crouched down to the ground and used her thumbnail as a way to measure a tiny pink flower, part of a cluster, to see if she had indeed found A flower no bigger than your thumb nail.

I noticed how, in traveling just this short distance from our house, we had slowed time down in a wonderful way. By now, we had checked off about half our items. We had experienced an array of sounds and quietude. We had explored moving and still images, shape and texture, light, shadow, and color, and near and far vistas. We could turn back toward the house now, but decided to go the long way around instead. What would we discover next?

When Paul and I began teaching together in 1983, one of our treasured references was the work of developmental optometrist G. N. Getman**. It was Getman who said, “Movement is learning; learning requires movement.” He elaborated by saying: “The fact that an infant must learn to walk and talk is fully accepted by everyone. It is most important to know that the infant must also learn to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste—the machinery for each is present, but he or she must learn to use it.”

Learning to use the senses doesn’t require being taught in a linear way. In fact, as pioneering educator Maria Montessori showed us, it’s more about being interested in learning for ourselves, while providing an environment that will engage the child’s desire to explore and discover. Actively looking around out side, as we were doing, naturally trains scanning, depth perception, eye teaming, and many other visual skills.

In 1989 I began teaching Visioncircles***: 8 Spheres of Perceptual Awareness, a course I developed in natural vision improvement. Since that time, I’ve seen repeatedly, with hundreds of students, that vision is a learned skill of attention, and that we can continue learning new visual and sensory skills throughout our lives. Further, I see that in all the ways that we teach children, we’re teaching them (for better or worse) how to see and to use their senses. Let’s take every opportunity to engage a broad range of sensory and motor skills that will support a lifetime of rich multi-sensory interactions.

* PACE, a quick and simple way to activate sensory and motor skills for learning, includes four of the 26 Brain Gym® activities. Click here for the name of an instructor near you. PACE, and the 26 are also described in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, © 2010.

**G. N. Getman, O.D., How to Develop Your Child’s Intelligence (1992).

***To find a Visioncircles Instructor in your area, click here.  See also: The Vision Gym activities, described in Vision Gym®: Playful Movements for Natural Seeing, a card set and booklet by Gail E. Dennison and Paul E. Dennison. 

© 2013 by Gail E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation.

 

 

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.

Dexterity in the Modern World

dreamstime_m_22440341Susan called me to set up an appointment for her daughter Julie, age nine and in the third grade, saying that she was concerned about Julie’s cursive writing. Susan had overheard Julie arguing with her older sister about how to correctly hold a pencil, and realized for the first time how tense Julie was when she wrote. She knew that Julie was working hard to complete her handwritten math and writing assignments, but that she would really prefer to be hunting and pecking on a keyboard.

When I met Julie, I asked her to make up a sentence and write it down for me. I noticed how she held her pencil in a tight grip, thumb tucked under her fingers, making each “o” in a clockwise circle. She also sat awkwardly torqued, her weight toward her right side and her paper placed in the far right of her visual field. As she wrote “Today I went to school,” she paused several times, even in the middle of words, and twice erased letters to redo them.

Fine-motor hand-eye skills are done over time—ideally in a fluent, linear, sequence—with precision and dexterity. Through the years of a child’s concurrent sensorimotor and academic development, these skills support the maturity of higher-order thinking by developing laterality, including the abilities of both analysis and “big picture” thinking. Such writing makes a pleasurable developmental contribution when the thumb is relaxed and working with the fingers to create easy circles and loops to both the left and the right.

Since thought is much faster than movement—especially the disconnected movements of printing—fluent cursive writing is more conducive than printing to creative thinking. Cursive writing connects letters, connected letters make words, and to connect those words is to connect thoughts. Recording those thoughts by a fluid method helps them be expressed in a flowing and articulate manner. In my more than 40 years of working with thousands of learners, I’ve seen how well a relaxed hand position that allows for the reciprocal back-and-forth motion of cursive writing helps to stimulate the brain and creative thought.

When the thumb is stiff, or tucked under like Julie’s, it acts as a brake to the hand, inhibiting the back-and-forth motion needed for fluent handwriting. For a right-hander like Julie, ideally the writing would be driven to the right by the thumb’s precision; the fingers would naturally move into the counterclockwise curve of the “o“ in reciprocal response. Yet, having grown accustomed to her pencil-holding skills through the previous five years, Julie was effortfully “drawing” the “o” and “a” in a clockwise way, and wasn’t interested in learning a new hand position. She seemed quite happy to continue writing in her accustomed way.

Thumb flexibility and the precision grip it provides are gifts to be nurtured. The fine-motor skills it affords enable us to grasp and hold objects—to become comfortable interacting with and even changing our three-dimensional physical environment. Opposable-thumb development makes possible important human functions such as eating with utensils, cutting with scissors, and writing with an implement, and I see it also contributing to higher-order skills like choice making, transference of learning, and the application of ideas.

Fine-motor skills, including the coordinated muscle movements we make when we use our hands, develop as a child gains cognitive abilities, along with whole-body mobility and stability. Pulitzer Prize-nominated neurologist Frank Wilson, author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, states, “You can’t really separate what’s in the mind from what’s in the body. Knowledge really is the whole behavior of the whole organism,” and says that teachers shouldn’t “educate the mind by itself.” He asserts that “if lessons do not involve the hands and the body in full movement, much of the knowledge will be poorly processed and inadequately learned.”*

Maria Montessori recognized this concept more than a century ago. The core of the Montessori method’s philosophical approach to learning for children is the idea that sensory learning and hands-on interaction with objects creates a direct link to the mind. This idea was fundamental to my own thinking as, in the 1970s, I began to formulate the Brain Gym® activities.

When we think of fine-motor skills, we most often think of drawing, cursive writing, tying one’s shoelaces, or cutting paper with scissors. However, to acquire those skills a child needs several readiness preliminaries. The building blocks for such fine-motor control without distortion of the alignment include whole-body stability, bilateral coordination, and muscle proprioception.**

Doing the Brain Gym activities lets students experience the fine-motor, physical skills of learning within the context of their gross-motor skills. The concept is that, when such large- and small-motor physical skills are automatic and effortless, the mental processes of higher-order thinking can proceed without creating physiological stress.

Without asking Julie to hold her pencil any certain way or showing her how to use her thumb correctly, I asked her to choose from the wall chart some Brain Gym® activities for her, Susan, and me to do together toward her goal of thinking with ease while writing. To support her stability, bilateral coordination, and proprioceptive skills, Julie chose the following:

The Cross Crawl calls for moving the whole body in place in contralateral rhythm, using both sides of the body at the same time while maintaining balance and stability.

The Thinking Cap, “unrolling” the ears from top to bottom, helps one to turn the head left and right while paying focal attention to the task at hand.

Arm Activation (see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition) helps learners to relax gross muscle control of the arms and become more acutely aware of the fine muscles of wrist, fingers, and thumb.

The Double Doodle lets one experience reciprocal motion of the thumb and fingers as well as crossing of the visual/tactile midline from the left visual field through the midfield, into the right field, and back.

After doing these Brain Gym activities, Julie picked up her pencil and resumed writing. She sat up more squarely in the chair, placing the paper in her midfield. She didn’t realize at first that she was holding the tool more loosely in her hand and no longer tucking her thumb. As she formed her letters, her fingers and thumb were now working together as partners. She wrote faster and more smoothly, and it was apparent to her mother and me that, this time, without having to organize the mechanics of how to write, Julie was thinking of what to write. She was experiencing what it’s like to think with fluidity and write at the same time.

*Tenner, Edward. “Handwriting Is a 21st-Century Skill.” The Atlantic, April, 2011.

**Stability is the sense of vestibular balance necessary to hold still one part of the body, such as the head, while another part moves.

Bilateral coordination is the efficient use of both of the sides of the body (including paired sensory organs—the eyes, ears, and hands). For example, one hand will manipulate a tool while the other assists. I find that the development of bilateral coordination leads directly to integrated hand dominance (right- or left-handedness).

Proprioception is the knowing of where the hands, arms, and fingers are spatially and how they’re moving in relation to the rest of the body. Noticing such muscle movement is the beginning of dexterity, by which a person is better able to use small, accurate, precise movements to stack blocks, open containers, pick up tiny objects, and practice many other skills in readiness for reading, writing, and doing mathematics.

Photo © Dreamstime, used by permission.

The activities mentioned here are from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Paul and Gail Dennison, (C) 2010.

This movement-based, experiential approach to learning, as well as the 26 Brain Gym® activities, is taught in Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life. An in-depth exploration of sensory specialization for academic skills, including the Action Balance for Dexterity, and a balance to honor the learning profile, is offered in the Optimal Brain Organization course.

© 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 your area.

Photo credit: © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

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