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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Youngsters benefit when we listen for what really matters to them.
Zane, age 12, was an excellent reader whose mother brought him to my office for a Brain Gym® balance to be able to write more legibly.
When we discussed his choice of a goal for our session, Zane realized that what would really mean a lot to him—even more than writing better—would be improving his soccer game. I helped him refine his goal to: “To keep my eyes on the ball and see with my mind and body as one.”
Since the writing was also important to him, we included pre-activities for handwriting. As he sat and wrote a sentence, Zane mentioned that his hand was hurting, as it often did when he wrote. I could see that he sat uncomfortably in his chair, and that he didn’t yet know how to easily hold a pen between his fingers and thumb for a precision grip, using more of a power grip(1) instead.
Most people observing Zane as he sat and stood might think, from his laid-back posture, that he was very relaxed—perhaps disinterested and not really engaged in what was happening. I could see, though, that he was struggling to accomplish the simplest movements, actually pushing forward against his own muscle response to hold back.
An example of the power grip. The hand remains static; movement is from the shoulder.
Zane’s mom had told me that his teacher included some Brain Gym activities in her classroom, so Zane had been doing the Cross Crawl and Lazy 8s daily for a while. Yet these Midline Movements(2), by themselves, were apparently not getting to the cause of Zane’s challenge.
In the late 1970s, when I began developing the 26 Brain Gym activities, I wanted to offer them in a way that would support all three of the anatomical dimensions: left-right, up-down, and back-front. Over time, I organized the Brain Gym activities into three categories for that intention: The Midline Movements, The Energy Exercises/Deepening Attitudes(2), and The Lengthening Activities, envisioning how this would give learners, whether sitting, standing, or playing sports, options they could easily use to keep themselves active and engaged. So I explained to Zane and his mother that, when we’re playing, fully participating, and doing our schoolwork, we move in three anatomical dimensions that all work together synergistically.
In those early days I knew from the research on vision(3) how important the left-right dimension is for classroom success. I’d seen (as I continue to see) that, for some people, doing only a few simple Midline Movements for this lateral dimension can be enough to integrate the physical skills and improve performance for a particular academic task. I’ve come to fully trust that, as learners do the Brain Gym activities and experience the body’s geometry, they will naturally gravitate to moving more in terms of it.
Through the years, as school routines have generally become more sedentary, I’ve seen the other two dimensions become even more important for learners to know how to access. For example, until the back-front dimension is available for mobility and forward movement, the left-right skills as taught in the Midline Movements category may not be readily accessible.
Observing Zane as he did his pre-activities, I could see that his back-front body movement (what I call the Focus Dimension) wasn’t available to him. Zane seemed to be walking and moving with his brakes on, in a casual posture that actually required great exertion on his part for any forward movement. When he lay on his back, he could experience the shortness and tightness of his hamstring muscles. He could hardly bend at his hip joints, and could barely lift either leg six inches. After doing a short series of Lengthening Activities for his Focus Dimension with his mom and me (The Footflex, The Calf Pump, The Grounder, The Gravity Glider, Arm Activation, and The Owl), Zane was able to lift one leg nearly perpendicular to the other, then repeating on the other side, now accessing hip flexibility.
The next priority was the Midline Movements. Zane chose The Double Doodle and Alphabet 8s, which I often use to help teach skills of eye teaming, fine-motor coordination, and letter formation for cursive writing.
What a difference! By the time we did the post-activity for seeing and kicking the ball, Zane was standing and moving spontaneously in three dimensions. He seemed delighted to be having an experience of trusting his body to see and move at the same time. He commented that he now felt he could move so much more quickly—that he seemed to know where the ball would be next. I could see that, with his muscles now more flexible and more organized in terms of his vision, Zane was moving with greater ease and agility.
An example of the precision grip. The thumb and fingers work together; the hand’s position is dynamic.
I noticed that, when he now sat down to write for his post-activity, Zane sat more upright and showed greater muscle tone and fine-motor dexterity. He automatically placed the paper on the desk in his center of vision, picked up the pen with a relaxed grip, wrote with ease and coordination, and, without being told how to do so, used a precision grip. His mother looked eagerly over his shoulder as he wrote and exclaimed, “I can actually read it!”
It’s sessions like these that make my work so fulfilling.
1) The Power and Precision Grip:
Hertling, D., & Kessler, R. M. (1996). Management of common musculoskeletal disorders: Physical therapy principles and methods. (3rd ed.).Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, pp 259-260.
Smith, L.K., Weiss, E.L. & Lehmkuhl, L.D. (1996). Brunnstrom’s clinical kinesiology. (5th ed.). Philadelphia: F.A. Davis., pp 216-219.
2) The 26 Brain Gym® activities are described in terms of the three categories of The Midline Movements, The Energy Exercises/Deepening Attitudes, and The Lengthening Activities in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, © 2010. The Energy Exercises and Deepening Attitudes are both part of the Centering Dimension, involving up and down movement for stress release through improved organization/stabilization. While the Energy Exercises help develop a sense of vertical orientation, the Deepening Attitudes support awareness of boundaries.
3) A few references on vision and learning:
Maureen Powers, PhD, David Grisham, OD, Phillip Riles, MA. Saccadic tracking skills of poor readers in high school. Journal of the American Optometric Association; Volume 79, Issue 5 , Pages 228-234, May 2008 American Optometric Association. Published by Elsevier Inc.
David Grisham, OD, MS, Maureen Powers, PhD, Phillip Riles, MA. Visual skills of poor readers in high school. Journal of the American Optometric Association: Volume 78, Issue 10 , Pages 542-549, October 2007. © 2007 American Optometric Association. Published by Elsevier Inc.
Solan, H.A., Shelley, Tremblay, J. Larson, S. Mounts, J. Silent Word Reading Fluency & Temporal Vision Processing Differences Between Good and Poor Readers. JBO – Volume 17/2006/Number 6/Page 151.
Streff, John W. The Cheshire Study: Change in Incidence of Myopia Following Program Intervention. Frontiers in Visual Science; Springer Series in Optical Sciences Volume 8, 1978, pp 733-749.
Clare Porac, Stanley Coren. Monocular asymmetries in recognition after an eye movement: Sighting dominance and dextrality. Perception & Psychophysics. January 1979, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 55-59.
Boy with soccer ball: ID 22343505 © Spotmatik | Dreamstime.com
Example of power grip (thumb in inactive): ID 2028508 © Kateleigh | Dreamstime.com
Example of precision grip: ID 16095751 © Robbiverte | Dreamstime.com
© 2013 by Paul 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.
Last year at Thanksgiving time, Gail and I entered a new phase of our lives. We’d enjoyed thirty years of traveling and teaching in the real, sensory world of direct contact with learners, helping them let go of the stress reflex that shows up so visibly in the body and discover what it’s like to learn with more pleasure and ease, with engaged senses. Then, last November, at our family’s encouragement, we did something we never thought we’d do: we jumped into the world of social media and began exploring movement-based learning in a virtual space! And now, one year later, we’re so grateful that the social media have come into our lives.
Yes, we’re still traveling, teaching, and writing books. And we’re also giving back now in a new way—connecting with parents and educators from a new and expanded vision of movement-based learning, through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and our new website, Hearts at Play: Move, Learn, Bloom. What a joy it is to join virtually with Brain Gym® Instructors and like-minded parents and educators from around the world! We so appreciate these new means of growing, staying in touch, offering videos and skills updates, summarizing related research, and providing new thinking about how to cultivate innate intelligence and the pleasure of learning through the Edu-K, Brain Gym®, and Vision Gym® work.
In reflecting on my life during this time of giving thanks, I’m aware of so many people who have, through the years, reached out to me with generosity and support. I’m thinking back to the early 1970s, my USC studies, and the tribute I received for my dissertation on the relationship between thinking skills and beginning reading achievement; to the five developmental optometrists who mentored me, and with whom I shared office space at my nine Valley Remedial Group Learning Centers; and to the optometric in-service training I received that sparked my interest in learning through movement.
In 1979 I was blessed to study Touch for Health with Dr. John Thie and Gordon Stokes. Shortly after, I discovered Dennison Laterality Repatterning, the unique process that has benefitted so many people worldwide by drawing out innate intelligence through movement. As I envisioned a new way of teaching, my ideas on moving to learn continued constellating. During this time I offered my first Edu-K workshop for beginning reading to 15 private school teachers. Then, enthusiastic reception of my work by adults with learning disabilities prompted me to broaden my focus to include education of the adult population—work that, in time, has reached both adults and children of all ages and abilities. That year I studied natural vision improvement techniques with the late Janet Goodrich, who in turn studied with me and became a dear friend, wholeheartedly including a chapter on my work in her first book, Natural Vision Improvement.
In 1981 I published my first book: Switching On: The Holistic Answer to Dyslexia, and taught the first basic workshop in Educational Kinesiology (later to become the Brain Gym® 101 course). In July I presented Edu-K at the Touch for Health annual meeting, receiving warm encouragement for my work. Gail Hargrove was among the crowd giving me a standing ovation.
In 1982 my work was well received as I began teaching widely across the United States, while concurrently developing the Educational Kinesiology in Depth course. In each experiential workshop and private session, I saw adults and children alike make formidable breakthroughs in their goals, including improvements in reading, writing, math, whole-body movement, and pain relief. Parents and educators appreciated the specificity of the activities, the immediacy of results, and the knowhow to teach for transfer, along with the overall playful and celebratory nature of the courses.
Now, in this time of gratitude and thanks giving, Gail and I celebrate our 30-year creative partnership, which began just before Thanksgiving of 1983*. One year previously, on a September weekend, she and I happened to be the only Touch for Health instructors in attendance at a Live and Learn conference for local holistic health and bodywork practitioners. Our meeting and discovery of mutual interests initiated a deep friendship. That year, I had taught my first two Educational Kinesiology in Depth workshops, and Gail was a student in the second. In October of 1983 we two began a correspondence to create a language and body of literature that would make the Edu-K work more available to the general public. In December a friend in Germany, Wolfgang Gillessen, sponsored me in traveling to Berlin for the first of what has become more than 50 international lecture tours on five continents. That first Berlin class was attended by future International Faculty Members Alfred Schatz, Susanne Degendorfer, and Renate Wennekes.
Meanwhile, the readership of Switching On grew with its translation into Dutch in 1982, then into German, French, and Spanish. To my delight, this was followed in subsequent years by the further translations of what would become the Brain Gym® 101, Optimal Brain Organization (OBO), and Edu-K in Depth courses, the books Edu-K for Kids and Brain Gym®: Simple Activities for Whole-Brain Learning, and, in 1986, the Creative Vision manual and the Movement Dynamics handbook, and so on. During this time, the children at my nine Valley Remedial Group Learning Centers were being mainstreamed into regular classrooms. Periodic balances and the Brain Gym activities were sustaining their learning so that they no longer required tutoring. I began to gradually reduce the number of my learning centers.
And so it has gone through the years:
1984 – Gail and I were falling in love, and entering a time of rich creativity and abundant work. We began writing, traveling, and teaching Edu-K together. With Gail’s contributions, the In-Depth work emerged as a beautifully interwoven system for honoring the learner and drawing out new learning. Combining our knowledge of dance and kinesiology, we developed the Integrated Movements. In September we co-taught in Germany, Holland, and Norway. In November we published the first edition of Edu-K for Kids. And in 1984 I closed the last of my reading centers.
1985 – In January Gail and I were both invited to join the Touch for Health faculty, and we both accepted. In July we published the book Personalized Whole-Brain Integration. Gail added her favorite moves, along with innovations on the Double Doodle and Belly Breathing, to mine, as the movements now known as the Brain Gym activities began to take on a character all their own. Together we refined these simple activities and begin teaching them in a two-part course that would later become Brain Gym® 101 and OBO. In the fall, we two taught our newly developed Creative Vision course in Germany and the Netherlands. In this course we introduced some innovative vision work with great success, including the Dennison Cover Test for Crossing the Optic Chiasm (“the Cover Test”) and Gail’s Homolateral Reflex Balance. On the last day of December, my birthday, Gail and I joined our lives and families in marriage.
1986 – Early in the year, Gail began writing the Visioncircles Teacher’s Training manual for a course in perceptual development that included the Vision Gym® activities she had created. In March we took the Educational Kinesiology in Depth course to Australia and New Zealand and begin training faculty members Glenys Leadbeater and Barbara Ward there. In April we published the book Brain Gym®: Simple Activities for Whole-Brain Learning. Envisioned as a “homeplay” manual, it soon became a bestseller beyond our wildest expectations. In June, researcher Ji Khalsa presented the first experimental study on Edu-K: The Effect of Educational Kinesiology on the Static Balance of Learning-Disabled Students, with statistically significant results for the intervention of the Brain Gym activities. This quantitative research would be followed through the years by more than a hundred pilot studies and anecdotal reports.**
In July of that year, Patti Steurer and Colleen Carroll-Gardner of the United States joined us as Edu-K in Depth Faculty Members, while Barry Summerfield, Gillian Johnson, and Tania McGregor of Australia and Coby Schasfoort of Holland became overseas Edu-K in Depth faculty members. In August a group of creative educators joined us in establishing the Edu-Kinesthetics Advisory Committee to disseminate research, provide networking, and support professional growth. In November Gail and I taught the first Visioncircles workshop, with activities offered in an Action Balance format, in San Francisco. Gail and I also taught a basic Edu-K course in Pasadena, and I had the inspiration to teach a laterality balance and a three-dimension balance, which Patti and Colleen would later name the Wonder Balance and the X-Span Balance. In this year Patti and Colleen, along with George Gardner and Gabrell Carroll, begin working closely with us to follow the Visioncircles template and distill the basic Brain Gym material into easy-to-learn Action Balances.
1987 – To this day, I’m grateful that others recognized the value of my action research, and encouraged me. In January we established the nonprofit Educational Kinesiology Foundation (now Brain Gym® International), a 501(c)(3) public-benefit corporation. In April course co-developer (with Colleen Carroll-Gardner) Patti Steurer and new Faculty Member George Gardner taught the first version of a Brain Gym Teacher Practicum. In June the first edition of Brain Gym Magazine was published, with Gail Dennison as its editor. In July the first annual Educational Kinesiology Gathering was held at California’s Murrieta Hot Springs, with more than a hundred people from around the world in our opening circle.
1980 to 2013 – Through the decades, we’ve continued to be blessed to work together with many remarkable people who have shared our vision of a world where learners are free to move and discover sensory integration and self-initiated learning. I want to name some of these visionary educators: The late Dorothy H. L. Carroll, Azasha Lindsey, Marilyn Lugaro, Rose Harrow, Don Wetsel to cite just a few of the early pioneers, freely gave of their time and imagination to help build a community, to set up the Brain Gym® trademark and balance together for the qualities it would represent, to envision how the work might be carried forward, and to support me in opening the work to the world in more than 80 countries and forty-some languages. Our work was furthered by the the insight of biologist Carla Hannaford, author of Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head and several other books on learning and movement, who has been a long-time advocate, and taught us the physiology of Edu-K. Behind the scenes, John Hargrove is our art director and the graphic designer of our beautiful charts and posters. We thank him for designing our new Hearts at Play website and making it user-friendly. And for more than 20 years our editor, Sonia Nordenson, has helped polish and clarify our writings.
Now, in 2013 at this annual time of Thanksgiving, Gail and I give thanks for our partnership, the gift of this wonderful and eclectic work, and our many blessings. Most important, we’re thankful for the opportunity to use the balance process daily in our own lives, and with our grown children and our grandchildren. During this season of rest, restoration, and community, we join together with our dear friends, family members, and associates to remember, honor, and appreciate each other, and to commemorate the challenges and difficult times as well as the rewards and bountiful harvest of so many of our dreams and efforts.
The Edu-K work of movement-based learning has continued to be my mission for 40 years now, and has continually connected Gail and me with a higher purpose. What a life! We have joyfully held the vision, celebrating as people from a multiplicity of cultures have come together regularly in courses and at conferences to play and balance, sharing their enthusiasm for learning through movement. Gail and I are grateful for the hundreds of service projects that instructors have offered in their own communities through the years, projects that have touched the lives of so many—from Croatia to Ecuador, from Indonesia to Poland, from Russia to S. Africa, and also for the gift of time that we two regularly offer as volunteers, so that others who follow us may benefit from the joy possible through movement-based learning.
We invite each of you to join with us in a space of promise and gratitude. Let’s keep expressing our love, kindness, understanding, compassion, and playfulness—our authentic selves—through the gates of thanks giving.
Gail and I send a big thank-you to each one of you for your valuing and participation. We wish you an amazing Thanksgiving Day, full of love, laughter, and gratitude for all that is and can be.
*For more about the story of how Paul and Gail met, click here.
**These statistical and anecdotal studies were compiled primarily by educators—independently, voluntarily, and without benefit of grants. Few of these were peer-reviewed. The intent of making them available was to evoke interest from researchers to do more scientific studies. (To date, there is little research on the relationship between specific motor skills and/or alignment, and sensory ease for academic learning.) Click here to download the Brain Gym® Studies Packet; scroll down the FAQs on this page to read about additional, more recent studies; click here to see further newsletter reports.
ID 23150638 © Americanspirit | Dreamstime.com, used with permission.
An experiential, movement-based approach to learning, including the Edu-K balance process and the 26 Brain Gym® activities, are taught in Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life.
© 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.
Susan 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.
The Double Doodle, one of 26 Brain Gym® activities, is a drawing made using both hands. You can do a Double Doodle in the air, on paper, or even on someone else’s back (it’s calming, relaxing, and comforting!). There are many kinds of Double Doodle*, but most of them are created by drawing a symmetrical design, with the hands mirroring each other side by side.
The heart-shaped Double Doodle design shown here is a simple and easy doodle with which to start exploring the fun and benefits of making mirror-image marks. If you are new to the Double Doodle, I suggest standing and using a large sheet of paper—on a flipchart or taped down vertically on a tabletop. In Brain Gym, when possible we connect with a whole-body (proprioceptive) context for using our hands and eyes. So before beginning, do a few repetitions of the Cross Crawl. By letting your arms swing freely as you move, you can use the Cross Crawl to relax your arms and hands for a more free-flowing Double Doodle.
Next, center your body in alignment with the vertical midline of the page (if you need to more clearly distinguish the midline, you can make a vertical fold in your paper). Now place both hands near the vertical midline of the paper. Notice how your hands are now automatically centered with your body and also with the page. Now let your hands move slightly up and out, as if to make two large circles, then down, in, down some more, and around, circling in the opposite direction to finally come to rest in the inward spiral. Let go of any need for yours to look like this one. Most often, Double Doodles are unique to the individual. Let your drawing surprise you!
Notice how the brief and expansive upward and outward shape of the movement gently balances the downward and inward spiral. Using large motor movement in gravity like this, the shoulders and elbows easily relax as we let our hands flow alongside one another in their natural movement: down the page on the flip chart, or toward us on a flat surface—the entire motion taking only seconds to complete. Notice also how doing the Double Doodle engages your large muscles in a smooth motion (there is almost no motion at the wrist), without the strain or tension on fingers and wrists so often associate with drawing or writing. Many people feel their eyes relax, as well. Even though the spirals at the bottom of the heart go in opposite directions, they seem to help one another flow, and here on the right is the counterclockwise motion that starts the letter “o” that children often struggle to make.
After drawing the shape, people often want to begin again at the top, or sometimes to draw it from the bottom up, in which case you’ll most likely complete the final stroke with your hands opposite your sternum. From here, for a moment, there’s nowhere to go, nothing to do. It’s a good place to pause—a place of completion and new beginning. For fun, I added small tapping marks around the shape.
This simple heart shape that you’ve just drawn, with its spiraling base, is common to much American folk art. To make it more elaborate, you can add flourishes, additional spirals of various sizes, or a slightly larger shape to mirror and encompass the first. And now that you know how to make this basic heart template, you can also adjust it in size or shape to create many other heart-shaped structures.
A Little Background on the Double Doodle
Paul first learned to do bilateral drawing in the early 1970s when he read developmental optometrist G.N. Getman’s book How to Develop Your Child’s Intelligence, an insightful classic that is still available and full of great suggestions for parents. Paul began using “bilateral drawing,” as Getman called it, with the students at his Valley Remedial Group learning centers. He found that the activity helped learners develop essential skills of tactility (you can experience that by tracing your completed drawing with your fingers), hand-eye coordination, and directionality, as well as visual discrimination for reading.
Directionality means knowing one’s orientation in space—knowing where up, right, left, and down are in terms of the center of one’s own body. As you can see and experience, the body’s midline isn’t something imaginary, any more than the midline of a page is an approximation. And the exactitude of the body’s midline, immediately identified through movement, supports the accuracy of the bilateral motions of the eyes needed for reading and writing, supporting as well all the turning motions of the head.
When Paul later met Dr. Getman, they discussed what was then 30 years of optometric research on learning that had yet to be implemented in the classroom (it’s now been 70 years, and this research is still largely overlooked today). They also talked about how children’s perception depends on their movements that define their orientation, location, and differential manipulation, and how learning disabilities in basic school subjects are wholly preventable through the effective teaching of movement of the body, eyes, and hands. And when you did the Double Doodle, were you aware of moving in new ways by letting one hand mirror the movement of the other? Today, research is further investigating how novel, voluntary movement supports cognition and neuroplasticity.
When Paul and I began selecting the Brain Gym® activities to use in our 1986 book: Brain Gym®: Simple Activities for Whole-Brain Learning, we had already been teaching our own free-form variety of two-handed drawing, as described above, that we called the Double Doodle (Getman’s original bilateral activity was more structured). Classroom learning tends to emphasize one-sided movement of eyes and hands, yet we see every day how doing the Double Doodle for even a few minutes helps learners experience two-sided (bilateral) integration with hands and eyes working together in synergistic collaboration.
*The Double Doodle is one of 26 Brain Gym activities from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, ©2010. The introductory course Double Doodle Play: A Window to Whole-Brain Vision offers a full day of exploration built on mirror-image mark-making and painting. The Double Doodle and other Brain Gym activities are taught in Brain Gym 101: Balance for Daily Life.
** See Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading.
© 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 a Brain Gym or Double Doodle instructor near you.
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