Carla Hannaford

“The notion that intellectual activity   

Carla Hannaford, Ph.D., teaching the Physiological Basis of Learning

Carla Hannaford, Ph.D., teaching one of her courses: The Physiological Basis of Learning

can somehow exist apart from our bodies is deeply rooted in our culture. It is related to the attitude that the things we do with our bodies, and the bodily functions,emotions, and sensations that sustain life, are lower, less distinctly human. This is also the basis of a lot of educational theory and practice that make learning harder and less successful than it could be.”

—Carla Hannaford, biologist and educator
from her book Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head

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.



Going Outdoors with Your Child to Share Visual Beauty 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. <>

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

© 2013 by Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.

Photo © Skoric |


Calling Butterflies

monarch_butterfly_clipart_png_by_madetobeunique-585x409Yesterday 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


What My Granddaughter Wasn’t Obliged to Do


Today my nine-year-old granddaughter helped me take down our fairy tree. We had talked about redecorating it with birdseed ornaments and then setting it out on the lawn for the birds to enjoy. I asked her  if she still wanted to do that, and her enthusiasm was unstoppable. So we got to work removing our homemade decorations, as well as the lovely scarves that had framed it. Then we took the little tree out to the patio. Sitting at the patio table, we spooned thistle seed onto various sizes of cheesecloth to create some new ornaments, tying each of these with a colorful ribbon. I’m always amazed at how much energy and enthusiasm children can have for a project that might seem tedious if it were required. (This is the Tom Sawyer phenomenon. As Mark Twain said, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”)

I saw my granddaughter practicing skills of dexterity (cutting, tying) and of measuring with her palm (“Grandma, do you think this is about a thousand seeds?”), as well as exhibiting the emotional qualities of compassion and caring for the natural world, wanting to contribute something meaningful and participate in nature’s recycling of materials. She set the tree on the lawn and carefully attached the ornaments. As you can see, the birds are greatly enjoying the gift of our fairy tree.

To read an inspiring blog on the importance of such play to develop intrinsic motivation, see the guest blog with Randal McChesney.

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

The Comfort of Sensory Beauty

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 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.

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