Playing “the School Game”

Paul_HonfleurI met Jack, 16 and a high school junior, in October of last year. when he was feeling ready to give up on school and quit. On the phone, his father told me that Jack hated school, was falling down in his attendance, and was struggling just to get passing grades.

Later that week, Jack walked into my office with his dad, shoulders slumped and looking discouraged. After the introductions, I talked with Jack about what he liked and didn’t like about school. He said that he didn’t do well because he was afraid of his teachers and didn’t think they liked him. I asked Jack what he would do if he didn’t have to go to school every day. His eyes lit up as he promptly said he would work for his uncle, building houses, and he smiled when I suggested that school is just a game we play so we can graduate, get a diploma, and eventually, as adults, do the work that we enjoy doing.

Jack said that it was his dream to design houses like the ones his uncle built. We came up with a goal for him to trust himself to succeed in his own way.  So, for his pre-activity, I suggested that he draw a house as he imagined it. His three-dimensional perspective was amazing. “Wow, I see you really could be an architect!” I said, adding, “I’m sure you realize that school tests measure information retrieval, not drawing ability or imagination. When you get to graduate school, your gifts in this area will be recognized. Right now, I want to help you discover how to stop trying so hard, let go of your anxiousness, and just do your best to hang in there and play the school game.”

I explained that, when we’re afraid and feeling down, we are more likely to move in compensatory ways—even taking on postures that don’t help us to feel good or support our best learning abilities. Moving in new ways, I said, can shift how we feel and learn. Together we did some Brain Gym® activities: PACE, Lazy 8s, the Double Doodle, and the Lengthening Activities. After the balance, Jack’s growing self-esteem was evident in his improved physical alignment and focused vision as he now laughed and made eye contact.

A few months later, Jack came for a follow-up session. He had been doing his PACE activities every day, as well as the Footflex, to help him stay on track with his goal. He was now doing better in his classes, felt more comfortable with his teachers, and said that it helped him to remember the reward that “the school game” would offer him after he graduated.

As an educator who stays current on the research in neuroscience, I know that students are able to learn better when they can self-calm and be at peace within their environment the way Jack learned to do. Being in such harmony means feeling safe—feeling that we belong, that we have a place in life and are valued.

Unfortunately, the focus on standardized requirements has pulled many public schools away from whole-child teaching and learning. Fear of the negative results of measurement and evaluation has too often changed the school environment from a place of engaging mentors and stimulating learning activities to one of burdensome homework and anxiety about test performance. Less time is spent on interactive art, music, and outdoor activities that honor a diversity of learner skills and interests.

The Brain Gym® program, when offered for even a few minutes a day, has been found to help students let go of stress and fear, move purposefully toward their goals, and attend to the joy of learning that is the natural focus of every child.


To discover more about Paul’s approach to teaching, see Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, by Paul E. Dennison, © 2006.

Note: Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., the director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development and the author of 15 books including Neurodiversity in the Classroom:  Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life, argues that there is no ‘normal’ brain or ‘normal’ mental capability, and that it’s a disservice to learners to assume that their differences involve only deficits. Armstrong instead describes learners in terms of their diverse gifts and intelligence, which he refers to as neurodiversity. 

© 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.

The Gifts of Moving in Synchrony

Students in a Brain Gym course in Germany move in sync as they draw two-handed shapes on one-another’s backs, a game called the “Double Doodle Train.”

In Brain Gym, Paul and I identify three dimensions of learning: Focus, Centering, and Laterality. We describe the Focus Dimension, the dimension most commonly called upon in a modern classroom, as involving two kinds of attention.some focal attention is almost certainly necessary for storing information in the memory at all. Beyond the well-known focal attention—usually seen as occurring within the range of hand-eye coordination, we teach learners to access a second kind of lesser-known attention, often referred to as ambient awareness.* It is in part this ambient attention that a group of singers, dancers, musicians—even players of active games or sports—must call on in order to stay in sync with one another.

I’m familiar with this kind of coordinated rhythmic movement, as it’s noticeable when we do Brain Gym activities, such as the Cross Crawl, the Double Doodle (a variation of which is shown in the above photo), or other Brain Gym or Vision Gym activities with a group. Doing simple movements together creates an immediate connectedness among people, bringing smiles to faces and playfulness to interactions. There’s something joyful about a synchrony like this.

Rhythmic and coordinated movement provides synchronous behavior that is the essence of many kinds of group activities. I was seeing the evidence of at least three out of eight kinds of intelligence, from Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, as interpreted by educator Thomas Armstrong*: Bodily-kinesthetic, spatial intelligence (an ability to sense one’s environment), and logical-mathematical (pattern recognition).

This contextual, spatial awareness allows a person to feel safe in the room, while the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence keeps them sitting comfortably upright in their chair, able to stay aware of their whole body position as they move just one part, such as their eyes for reading or their hand for writing.

Does synchrony help with academics? I’ve heard educator Randal McChesney (who teaches coordinated movement in the Education Through Movement program) speak of group singing as being supportive of vocal intonation and the poetic rhythm of prosody needed for fluent reading. And I see evidence all the time of coordinated movement being an important touchstone for the development of language skills. Δ

For more on the hypothesis of the what and where streams, see

Ungerleider, L. G., and Haxby, J. V (1994). “What” and “where” in the human brain. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 4, 157–165.

Ungerleider, L. G. and Pasternak, T. (2004). Ventral and dorsal cortical processing streams. In “The Visual Neurosciences” (L.M. Chalupa and J.S. Werner, eds.) pp. 541-562. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

For more research on interpersonal synchrony and its effects on social bonds, see

Cirelli, Laura K., Kathleen M. Einarson, and Laurel J. Trainor. 2014. “Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Prosocial Behavior in Infants.” Developmental Science: This study of 14-month olds  “. . . support[s] the hypothesis that interpersonal motor synchrony might be one key component of musical engagement that encourages social bonds among group members, and suggest[s] that this motor synchrony to music may promote the very early development of altruistic behavior.”

Shaw DJ, Czekóová K, Chromec J, Mareček R, Brázdil M (2013) Copying You Copying Me: Interpersonal Motor Co-Ordination Influences Automatic Imitation. PLoS ONE 8(12): e84820. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084820

Tal-Chen Rabinowitch, Andrew N. Meltzoff. Synchronized movement experience enhances peer cooperation in preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2017; 160: 21 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2017.03.001

Hove MJ, Risen JL (2009) It’s all in the timing: Interpersonal synchrony increases affiliation. Social Cognition 27: 949–960. doi: 10.1521/soco.2009.27.6.949 PubMed/NCBI

*Educator Howard Gardner did pioneering work on the theory of Multiple Intelligences in the early 1980’s. Educator Thomas Armstrong has interpreted this work in several books, including Seven Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences Plume, 1999, and Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Achieve Success in School and Life, Da Capo Lifelong Books; 2011. Besides the four intelligences named here, Armstrong also names the well-known linguistic intelligence, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (emotional) intelligence.

A friend recently sent me a link to a video on the Recycled Orchestra, in which young musicians in Cateura, Paraguay, play instruments made of trash. I found it to be both inspiring and thought-provoking.

This 3½-minute documentary tells of a community of people who live in a slum built on a landfill. When someone there discovered the discarded shell of a violin, a remarkable idea ignited within the neighborhood: to imagine how they might advocate for the children in their community to learn to play musical instruments. In a place where “a violin is worth more than a house,” residents have built cellos made from recycled oil cans, made use of kitchen tools and bent fork tines to hold violin strings, and generated orchestral music where such music had been rare. Landfill Harmonic is an upcoming feature-length documentary about how this happened.

Watching the video, I saw joy and a bright intelligence in the faces of these young people, and felt these qualities resonating through their compelling music.

© 2013 by Gail 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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