Movement-Based Learning at the 2013 Touch for Health Conference

Paul_Gail_0511_web5On Saturday, August 3, at the invitation of author and instructor trainer, Matthew Thie, the director of Touch for Health Education, the two of us had the privilege of presenting at the 38th annual Touch for Health Conference, held this year at the Serra Retreat in Malibu, California. Among the 100 plus participants we saw old friends and made new ones from near and far-flung areas of the world. What an honoring of the legacy of Dr. John Thie, who developed the Touch for Health program! We were inspired by chiropractor Sheldon Deal, who introduced valuable new techniques for calming the brain as he spoke of a life of service as the key to vitality and well-being. We were honored to be part of a panel discussion with Touch for Health colleagues on the future of teaching through movement, touch, and balance.

In our own presentation, we invited participants to experience their skill at balancing on one-leg, both before and after doing some Brain Gym® activities. Many thanked us afterwards for this simple yet surprising demonstration of the power of learning through balance and motor skills. We shared with the group how we’re realizing our dream of seeing movement-based learning unfold as a worldwide reality.

We explained that many people understand education as declarative only: the taking in of information. Yet without procedural knowledge, students are unable to put new learning into action. So one essential task of skilled teaching is to create harmony 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 carry out our thoughts and purposes. So while motivation provides the zeal to declare a goal or intention, movement gives us a map for applying the intention and following through.

Purposeful movements like the 26 Brain Gym® activities improve balance and coordination. For years, a growing body of research has related vestibular balance to school-readiness. Most recently (in 2005), researchers Stoodley, Fawcett, Nicolson, and Stein found an impaired balancing ability in dyslexic children. The One Leg Stand (Schrager, 2001) has been incorporated into a more extensive test battery to identify children who have, or are at risk of having, ADHD, dyslexia, and other specific learning disabilities. Balance beams and balance boards are being widely used by special education teachers to develop balance abilities, for the ability to keep one’s balance is known to be highly correlated with brain integration and reading-readiness. Katy Bowman, an expert on the science of biomechanics emphasizes that, to the extent that balance is lacking, the brain, visual system, and vestibular system have to work harder to compensate. In Edu-K we find that the integrity of the moving physical structure provides a context for the cognitive function necessary for focal attention and new learning.

Moving activates the brain. Dr. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, says in his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, “Exercise boosts brain power. Humans adapted during evolution by constantly moving (both to get food and to avoid predators).” Medina further asserts that people think better in motion.

Movement educators understand learning as a process of using activity, focus, play, and practice to make things ever more real, certain, familiar, and functional. They guide children in moving through a learning cycle that begins with an experience of openness to novelty (a goal). The next step is, through play or imagination, to perform a new function with the intention to master it. The teacher assists the learner in making a match between his goal and a previously learned skill (or familiar context) from which to move. The cycle is completed as the new skill is coded through words and expression until it becomes familiar and easy to recall. Finally, celebration of the learning provides a successful context for ever further growth. At any given moment, the teacher can lead the learner to a happy medium between exploring on his own and connecting with the group; both essential elements to the learning process.

What holds meaning and interest for learners is what will claim their attention. The learner’s entire experience consists of the places to which he directs his attention and the resultant neuropathways created in order for him to physically, mentally, and emotionally convey himself to those places. Ideally, the focuses he selects—as a self-initiating learner—will enhance his world and influence him to feel at ease and connected with others. True education is not about deficit management. Any learning challenge is recognized as the effect of effort still in motion toward a skill that has yet to be fully learned.


This blog is adapted from an article: “Movement-Based Learning for Life” by Paul and Gail Dennison, published in the Touch for Health 38th Annual Conference papers.

For more about balance and learning, see Paul’s article: Stand Up . . . Sit Down . . . Can You Do It?

© 2013 by Paul and Gail 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.






How Nurturance Is Trumping Old Ideas of IQ and Genetics

Paul-Chart PhotoThere once was a little boy who was left-handed, quiet, and shy, and who liked to draw pictures. He was not ready for school as early as his classmates were, and his parents were told, “Don’t expect much from Paul. He won’t do well in school, and he certainly won’t be going to college.”

Yes, I was that little boy. Nearly 20 years later, when I started teaching school, the principal showed me a listing of the intelligence quotient scores of the students in my class and told me, “These children are below average; we don’t expect you to teach them very much. Keep them busy, make sure they behave, and you’ll have a very good year.”

As a schoolteacher, I quickly learned to pay little attention to the IQ scores of my students, and to see each child as a curious being with a diversity of intelligence that was ready to blossom, given the necessary care and nurturance.

Both “nature” (genetics) and “nurture” (learning) are involved in every child’s unfolding. However, each child is unique, with distinctive gifts and strengths. Not all children develop at the same rate and respond to stimuli in the same manner. Nature, the genetic blueprint of an individual, has often been misunderstood as a ceiling or limitation of capability placed upon the child. Nurture, the educational environment provided, along with the positive expectations of grownups who believe in children, can call forth unseen potential and help young people far exceed their statistical probabilities.

In my own case, having loving, caring parents and teachers who believed in me made the difference. I succeeded in school, and today I help teachers around the world to make a positive difference in the lives of the children they mentor.

When parents ask me to work with their children, they sometimes describe these youngsters with labels that make them sound as if there’s something seriously wrong. Yet, when I see the children, I always see uncommon potential just waiting to be drawn out. I understand why parents use such labels, yet I believe we can support young people best by seeing beyond them.

Today, at last, scientific research in the field of epigenetics validates the commonsense idea that teaching and learning do, in fact, make a critical difference. We now know that such optimal cultivation can affect and change even the DNA once believed to limit us.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

To read more of Paul’s story, see Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, by Paul E. Dennison, © 2006.

Brain Gym®  is a trademark of Brain Gym®  International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.


Book Review: The Genie in Your Genes: Epigenetic Medicine and the New Biology of Intention

The Genie in Your Genes: Epigenetic Medicine and the New Biology of Intention by Dawson Church, Elite Books, 2007, 362 pages

Paul E. Dennison

As I was studying for my doctorate in the 1960s, the debate in my educational psychology classes was that of the influence of “nature versus nurture”—the relative contributions of genetic inheritance and environmental factors to a child’s unfolding. Yet, as a mentor and educator, my definition of “nurture” is always to teach. All learners are unique, with varied gifts and strengths. I believe in the power of the learning process to bring out a person’s best, so my intention is always to nurture, no matter the circumstances.

On reading educator and researcher Dawson Church’s book Genie in Your Genes: Epigenetic Medicine and the New Biology of Intention, I felt a growing excitement as Church revealed recent scientific research showing the startling malleability of our genes, which can change from moment to moment according to our thoughts and feelings. In my own years of teaching, I have daily seen how new learning—which can occur in an instant—has a direct impact on vitality, motivation, and well-being. Church makes the case that we can influence our cells and bodies—our health—by “claim[ing] responsibility for the quality of thought and feeling we host, selecting those that radiate benevolence, goodwill, love, and kindness.” “Nurture” even affects and changes those genes that were believed to limit us!

In this book, Church asks some important questions, such as: “What can we teach every high school student, every worker, and every retiree that would maintain their bodies and their minds in the best possible condition for the longest possible time?” “How can we make the largest number of people as well as possible?” He then offers provocative answers to these questions by elucidating the new field of epigenetics, which links how we think and emote—our everyday consciousness—to genetic changes in our RNA and DNA.

Church’s well-researched work validates the premise that, for better or worse, our lifestyle choices do in fact affect our genes. “Nature,” our inherited genes, might play an important role in our genetic blueprint. However, “nurture,” the parental, cultural (including academic), and personal choices that influence how we think, move, eat, and self-calm, has now been proven beyond a doubt to make a critical difference in gene expression and even to alter our genes.

In this important book, the author reveals how our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions trigger the expression of DNA strands. Even the people we choose to have around us affect our genes. Church is intrigued by the early work on mirror neurons, said to fire in the brain when we witness an act done by another that calls on the same group of neurons in us. He focuses on a class of genes called immediate early genes or IEGs, which respond to life events within a few seconds. Many IEGs are regulatory genes that switch on other genes affecting specific aspects of the immune system. Distress or negative stress, whether sourced from within or mirroring another, can depress gene expression that enhances immune-system function. Thus epigenetics is explaining how thoughts and beliefs influence our health continuously, each and every day.

Church gives examples of interventions that can be used deliberately, in the moment, to shift thoughts, beliefs, energies, and perhaps ultimately one’s genes. He describes some remarkable healings done using Gary Craig’s Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which uses affirmation and meridian tapping in a way similar to Educational Kinesiology processes, with similar, often surprising, benefits. Church makes the case that emotions signify to the brain what things are important. By tapping or rubbing acupressure points, a soothing physiological signal can release stress or a catastrophic thought, breaking the conditioned association.

He further refers to the Energy Psychology work of Donna Eden and David Feinstein, and provides “how-tos” of the Cross Crawl and the Wayne Cook posture (two activities central to Edu-K, Cook’s posture being the origin of Brain Gym® Hook-ups).

The Genie in Your Genes cites hundreds of scientific studies that give a sound theoretical framework for understanding this new field. The book makes a compelling prediction that the insights of epigenetic medicine will, in the coming decade, dramatically advance not only medicine and psychology but also the vital field of education.

Taking Tests Can Be a Breeze

Children Taking a TestTest taking is required of students throughout their school career. And, according to parents and educators in my courses as well as my own reading in the field of modern education, test-taking anxiety is a major challenge for learners around the world. People of all ages have shared with me about how they froze up or otherwise couldn’t think when faced with an important test. And such tests often become a metaphor for similar life experiences, such as being interviewed or giving a presentation.

It’s commonly known that, when stress goes up, mental integration goes out. People can’t perform well or fully access what they know when they’re nervous, worried, or in fight-or-flight mode. Writer’s block and test-taking apprehension result from trying too hard, doubting one’s abilities, or feeling oneself to be under pressure to perform. And in my work, I find that people writing under pressure to perform typically exaggerate one-sided habits of movement, avoiding the midfield where the left and right visual fields should overlap for memory access and information processing. For example, in the photo above, three youngsters are exhibiting movement patterns like tilting the head or putting the face so close to the page that they can’t focus with both eyes at once.1,2,3    

I’m reminded of an anecdote related to me by a school principal. She was proctoring an exam for fifth-graders when a child approached her to say that she needed to do some Brain Gym® activities in the hallway outside the room, and asked if she could. The principal advised her that this would be okay, but that the test was timed and she’d need to turn in her paper when everyone else did. The young lady stepped out to the hall for a few minutes to do Brain Buttons, the Cross Crawl, Lazy 8s, and Hook-ups, and soon came confidently back into the room, completed her exam, turned in her paper early, and ultimately received a high score.

This child knew she could depend on certain kinds of movement to support her relaxation, reconnection, and information retrieval. As that principal pointed out, this youngster knew how to notice her experience and take care of herself; she knew how to do her best without trying.

It’s because of feedback like this that I find great satisfaction in teaching people how to do their best under high-pressure conditions. Doing consistent Brain Gym activities helps classroom learners faced with performance anxiety to self-calm, access their sensory skills and whole-body movement, and do their best.

A parent will tell me that she knows her child is bright beyond his years and has the answers, yet he can’t seem to put what he knows down on paper—especially during a test. As a teacher, I often respond that modern education gives too much attention to rote memorization or stamping information in, and has lost the true measure of learning: the joy of exploring the rich world, of feeling and senses, in which one lives. Learning is a different experience altogether when we can see our lives as a context for the easy retrieval of information from memory. This is why learners everywhere can benefit from the 26 simple Brain Gym aids to getting the information out.


1In my Edu-K work, I use movement to teach students to centralize their focus and to develop saccadic ease. Through simple activities, they learn to identify and develop singleness of vision and eye-coordination skills at near point (reading distance), and skills of accommodation (focus and refocus) at various distances and in different sequences. I find that these physical skills are directly related to ease of reading, writing, and test-taking, and that they can be learned.

2David Grisham, OD, MS, Maureen Powers, PhD, Phillip Riles, MA. Visual skills of poor readers in high school. Optometry – Journal of the American Optometric Association: Volume 78, Issue 10 , Pages 542-549, October 2007. © 2007 American Optometric Association. Published by Elsevier Inc. 

3Maureen Powers, PhD, David Grisham, OD, Phillip Riles, MA. Saccadic tracking skills of poor readers in high school. Optometry – Journal of the American Optometric Association Volume 79, Issue 5 , Pages 228-234, May 2008. © 2008 American Optometric Association. Published by Elsevier Inc. 

(C) 2013 by Paul E. 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.

Learning to Move Spontaneously

Three Boys Holding Sports BallsAlthough Wyatt’s mom brought him to see me because of his learning difficulties, he wasn’t interested in working on that topic. And when I asked this nine-year-old what he would like to work on, he came close to tears.

“Today we played softball,” he explained. I can’t catch the ball, and the other kids never choose me for their team. But I don’t care. I don’t even want to play. I can never think fast enough to know what to do.”

Together, Wyatt and I formulated his goal, for him to play and have more fun with his friends. I explained that, when we’re playing, sometimes our body moves even faster than our brain and we know what to do without thinking.

Wyatt agreed to an experiment: to see if he could learn to trust his body to move without his having to think about what to do next. From a static standing position, I threw the ball to Wyatt with a moderately easy toss. First I threw it in a somewhat high arc, then in a low underhand, and finally in a straight line. He caught the ball awkwardly the first time and missed the next two catches, becoming more discouraged each time.

Wyatt and I were working on developing two kinds of intelligence that are central to Edu-K, as they’re important to a learner’s physical ease and connection with his environment. Educator Thomas Armstrong calls these the Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence and the Spatial Intelligence*. Playing catch, along with doing some Brain Gym® activities, is a great way for both children and adults to awaken attributes associated with these intelligences.

I told Wyatt he was probably analyzing too much and that, as he relaxed, he might discover some new ways to use his eyes and body together as he caught and threw the ball. I let him choose some Brain Gym activities from a poster in my office, and then he and I did the movements together to help him trust his physical responses. We did the Cross Crawl, then Arm Activation, the Footflex, Lazy 8s, and Hook-ups. When Wyatt felt ready to play, we did a post-activity so he could experience his new learning.

This time Wyatt easily caught the ball all three times. I then moved around a bit as I continued throwing it, and he moved in anticipation of catching it. I began to make the throws more challenging. He seemed to know where the ball would be without thinking. He was so excited. We danced around together, jumped up and down, and celebrated the joy of his new accomplishment.

I find that many children, and adults, too, overthink and try too hard instead of trusting their innate movement patterns. I love seeing these learners make the shift from trying too hard to spontaneously doing their best. And I’m confident that a happy and exploratory learner like Wyatt, who knows how to learn, will do well with whatever subject matter is presented to him.

*Educator Howard Gardner did pioneering work on the theory of multiple intelligences in the early 1980s. Thomas Armstrong has interpreted this work in several of his own 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 two intelligences named here, Armstrong identifies six others.

 The Brain Gym® activities are from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, ©2010. 

© 2013 by Paul 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 in your area.



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