Learning Calls for Physical Skills: The Role of Movement-Based Teaching

dreamstime_m_15847073Learning is defined as the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study. Learning depends on the ability to not only take in new information, but to also successfully transfer it from one subject area (such as spelling) to another (such as reading), and even to completely new territory (perhaps story writing), an ability that depends on skills of movement. Yet only recently are educators coming to recognize movement as the learning vehicle that it is. Educational programs have overemphasized declarative knowledge, which focuses mainly on the taking in of information, as learning itself. Without procedural knowledge—learning that is movement based—students are unable to apply what they know to new situations.

Most often, any academic program at school has been separated from physical education. One essential task of skilled teaching is to join and create harmony between the mental and the physical—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 practice, experiment, and bring the new learning into our muscles and movement patterns.

In Edu-K, we emphasize the procedural and start with the physical. We use simple physical activities as the primary context for acquiring new experience, as well as the vehicle for transferring new learning. These are purposeful activities, most taking about 30 seconds to do; not simply exercises or random movements. Most can be done while sitting, or when standing by a desk. Once children learn the movements, they can use them on their own, as needed. For example, we might do the Thinking Cap from the Brain Gym® activities, unrolling the ears from top to bottom three times, to teach the auditory skill of making a spelling distinction. When both ears are open, the sound of the spoken word pen will be more distinct from the sound of pin. We might then use the Thinking Cap again to help learners transfer that skill of auditory discrimination to better enjoy the sounds of language when reading.  Having both ears open allows for a greater sense of the lyrical flow of words, along with their meaning. Once again, we can scaffold this learning by having students listen to their thoughts while writing creatively. In other words, movement-based learning uses physical function as a way to bring learners’ attention to an experience of their senses as they engage in the learning process.

The educational theorist Jean Piaget described the learner’s cognitive structure as beginning with concrete operations, then moving to image-making, and finally to abstractions. In Edu-K, we find that the learner’s development of an internal map of the body gives the concrete experience essential to ease of function. This internal map includes feedback from proprioceptors, the “brain cells” in the muscles, an awareness of the relationship of joints to bone, an internal awareness of balance and directionality, and an ability to stand aside and notice or observe these functions. The learner is asking, in a pre-cognitive way: Where am I in space? Where is one thing in relation to another? The answer to these questions is given only through movement. The answers pave the way for explorations of What are these different elements of the world around me? And who am I in the world?

In A User’s Guide to the Brain, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School John Ratey, M.D., informs his readers that “. . . the brain’s motor function affects so much more than just physical motion. It is crucial to all other brain functions—perception, attention, emotion—and so affects the highest cognitive processes of memory, thinking, and learning.”

Through movement, the learner discovers how to notice, cultivate, and enjoy his own sensorimotor patterns instead of overriding them, abstracting his experiential learning into image and words. He begins to initiate and integrate his own self-directed learning, developing skills of feedback, feed-forward, and self-control. Integration of procedural and declarative knowledge results in knowing how to learn.


**Ratey, John J. A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain. New York: Vintage 2002, p.175.

***For more information about the Thinking Cap, as well as the other Brain Gym activities, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Paul and Gail Dennison, © 2010.

This movement-based, experiential approach to learning, as well as the 26 Brain Gym® activities, are taught in Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life, and other Edu-K courses.

To read the Italian translation of this article, click here: http://tinyurl.com/nv3l3fu or https://sigridloos.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/

The photo is © Goldenkb | 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.


5 Easy Keys to Happy Eyes for Your School-Age Child

dreamstime_m_18030319Now that summer’s over and they’re back in school, most children are sitting more and moving less, and this relative inactivity extends to the eyes. Although schoolwork is highly vision-oriented, it doesn’t typically involve the range and diversity of visual skills that are called for in three-dimensional activities. And each school day may result in hours of hunching over and reading at near-point, followed by a similar scenario at night while completing homework.

Research increasingly points to movement as a basic physiological need, and today’s parents and educators are doing much to engage learners in movement breaks and outdoor activities, realizing that the visual and movement patterns they develop as they begin to do schoolwork will follow them for many years into the future. Yet not all schools or homework assignments currently reflect this thinking.

Of special concern are those children who are not accustomed to the demands of so much sitting and pointing the eyes at symbols. In an effort to keep up in the classroom, they can quickly fall into a habit of trying too hard and not looking up. During study time at school and at home, it’s especially important for parents and educators to connect through intermittent conversation and eye contact, so that a child learns to associate relaxed attention as the context for learning. Here are five simple things parents and educators can notice about how a child is using his visual skills, along with suggested Brain Gym(R) activities* that can help guide learners of any age in exploring and gaining access to a fuller range of their visual and movement capabilities:

1. Relaxed Near Focus – Does he or she squint when looking at homework, or sit too close to the television or computer screen? Some children haven’t yet learned to move their eyes together; others have yet to discover the benefits of looking up every few minutes to break a staring habit. In either case, looking away from a task or into distant vistas can help relax the focus. Option: Show your child how to do Brain Buttons (see video) while following a horizon line with the eyes by moving them side to side. Talk about the distant colors and shapes that you see, inviting him or her to explore these with you.

2. Neutral Head Position – Does she frequently tilt her head when reading or drawing? Head tilting can be due to not being able to turn the head easily from side to side, and often goes along with one-sided neck and shoulder tension or even headaches. Option: Teach your child to do The Thinking Cap as described here: Before doing the activity, help her notice how easily she can turn her head without lifting or jutting her chin. Show her how to use her thumbs and index fingers to pull her ears gently back and unroll them, top to bottom, three or more times. Have her again notice her head turning.

3. Fluid Eye Movement – Notice how he reads. If he often loses his place or says “gril” for “girl,” he may not be using his eyes as a team as he scans and decodes words, resulting in blurry or reversed images. Option: Drawing Lazy 8s in the air or on paper, or tracing Lazy 8s on his back, can help him to relax, centralize his vision, and improve his scanning skills (click for further description). In Edu-K, we find that when children learn to move their eyes, they naturally point them without being taught.

4. Left-Right Balance – Does she seem to dislike standing or walking? Children often lack a whole-body sense of left-right movement, or else inhibit this sense when they sit excessively. Yet the muscles, visual system, and inner ear must work together to provide balanced movement in gravity, even for sitting. Option: Teach your child The Cross Crawl (see video). When children get more comfortable with a rhythmic left-right movement pattern, their gross-motor activity provides a context for ease of fine-motor (including visual) movement.

5. Spatial Awareness – Does your child rarely look up or away from his book, iPad, or gaming device? Perhaps he is finding it easier to rely on a single, set visual focus than to look up and process depth and movement in the three-dimensional world. Option: Use any of the four activities described above, The Cross Crawl, The Thinking Cap, Brain Buttons, and Lazy 8s, to help activate varied visual and motor skills that will support your child’s well-being and ease of academic learning as they let him “unlock” his gaze from that book or screen.

Each playful Brain Gym® movement provides a shift in focus of 10 seconds or so–long enough for the eyes to readjust–or can provide a longer diversion as needed (as when dancing a rhythmic Cross Crawl with music). Remember also to invite frequent breaks from homework or other near-point activities to make playful eye contact.


*These four Brain Gym® activities, along with others that support sensorimotor skills, are described in detail in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, 2010, by Paul E. Dennison and Gail E. Dennison. 

**These and other sensorimotor skills  are taught experientially, through movement and play, in the courses Brain Gym® 101: Balancing for Daily Life and Visioncircles: 8 Spheres of Perceptual Development. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

**Many children will make a shift in these visual habits after just a few playful experiences, as described. If your child consistently experiences any of these challenges, it’s a good idea to call an optometrist to schedule a routine eye exam.

Photo Credit: © Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com

© 2013 by Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.

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

Learning to Read: The Magic of Words on Paper

HeartsatPlay_ResourceSite_HomePage_workinaction_cross-crawlJosie, age nine and in the third grade, is an attentive student who loves sports, art, and to play outdoors. Reading came late to her, and she has never found it easy. She was tutored early on by her grandmother, Jane, who listened patiently and pronounced for Josie any new word she didn’t recognize. It was Jane who called me to set up a private session for Josie when she noticed that her reading had become more strained this school year.

When we met, I asked Josie what she liked about school. She responded in a halting, stilted way, saying that she liked playing with her friends. Josie then read a paragraph from a book she’d brought with her. I noticed that she read methodically, one word at a time, in a dull, flat monotone.  She knew most of the words, yet struggled along with little apparent enjoyment of the process.

A closer look revealed that Josie was holding the book in her right visual field. I checked her eyes for left-to-right tracking across the visual midfield, where the left and right visual fields overlap and the eyes converge for binocular integration.  Each time we crossed the midline, Josie lost sight of the target, unable to maintain her focus.

For beginning readers, the natural flow of informational learning starts with auditory perception as a child listens to people talking, or to fascinating stories being read or told. Like language, reading is first and foremost a verbal and auditory process. Relating it to prior experiences in memory benefits from integration of the auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile areas of the brain and the ability to interpret such received information as meaningful.

Learning to read requires simultaneously holding what is familiar (stored in words as a verbal code) and relating new information to experiences held in memory. It’s imperative to the learner’s long-term thinking success that the wholeness of language and its meaning is not broken into small, disconnected information bits as he reads. Eye-movement patterns are necessary, yet incidental, to the mental aspect of reading, and need to be so fluid, automatic, and stress-free that the auditory-language processes can proceed without inhibition. Language and meaning must always lead, and never follow, visual input.

Yet, for many, reading is about focusing on linear input, one word or phonetic sound at a time. This is a lesser aspect of reading, and one that, in its overemphasis, teaches excessive eye-pointing and an inaccurate idea of the reading process. This fragmenting of language can affect not only the way a child learns to think, but even their everyday way of speaking, as it had for Josie.

I invited Josie and her grandmother to do some enjoyable movements with me. I played some music, and the three of us put on our Thinking Caps, rubbed our Brain Buttons, did the Cross Crawl, and explored some slow Lazy 8s and the Double Doodle. We completed with Belly Breathing. After about fifteen minutes of the activities, Josie was able to track a moving target of focus with ease and facility, both left to right and right to left, across her reading midfield.

I asked Josie if she felt ready to return to her book, and she started to read again from where she’d left off.  It was like listening to a different person. Josie was now relaxed, and was telling us the story in her own natural speaking voice, with fully animated expression and obvious comprehension of where the narrative was headed.

“What was that about?” I asked. This time, Josie was able to answer without hesitation, easily turning her thoughts into fluent and meaningful language.

Jane was amazed. “How long will this last?” she asked. I told her that, like all physical skills, if this new way of reading is fully learned and becomes a new habit, it will last indefinitely. Josie will now prefer to read by staying in the midfield instead of avoiding it.

To reinforce the new skill, I recommended as homeplay the Thinking Cap, the Double Doodle, and Lazy 8s before and after reading, so Josie could quickly orient her body to her auditory and visual midfield to assure a happy reading experience every time. When they said goodbye, Josie and her grandmother told me they were looking forward to doing the activities together at home.


See also Discovering the Reading Midfield

Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading

Reading a printed page presents its own issues, as there is much more to reading than simply looking at an object. Experts have said that the eye muscles can move nearly 10,000 times in an hour of reading; that means the eyes must be able to refocus effectively in order to take in information without backtracking. http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/muscles.html

© 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.

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