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.






In the Modern Classroom, Children Move!

Girl jumping rope(1 minute read)
If you walk into a typical schoolroom anywhere today, you might think Something seems to be missing here. Is there something wrong with the children? By my understanding of the learning process, the children are just fine. There’s been absolutely nothing wrong with them—nothing that needs fixing. What’s missing, though, is so obvious that it has become widely invisible. What’s missing is movement.

For more than 40 years, as an educator with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction and as the developer of the Brain Gym learning program, I’ve been using movement to teach reading and the language arts. I daily see challenged learners spontaneously becoming capable learners, and how this happens is no mystery. Children naturally learn through movement, play, and peer interaction. My students of all ages learn without effort when I help them discover movement as the missing link in their experience.

In the 1960s, while in graduate school, I read many research studies on movement and learning that did not show positive correlations. Yet I saw the common sense of letting children move. I was exploring new territory, and I saw for myself how students at my learning centers often showed immediate and surprising improvements in focus and attention with a small intervention of eye- hand/or body movements.

In the last two years, I’ve read dozens of important new research studies* correlating movement with attention and cognition, as well as with well-being. Yet there is still little peer-reviewed research on coordinated movements like those infants do (rolling over, sitting up, creeping, crawling, . . .) and after which the Brain Gym activities** are modeled. It seems that a double-blind study might not be the most effectively ways to measure the many human variables involved in a program of rhythmic, coordinated movements.

Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D., creator of Brain Gym

Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D., creator of Brain Gym

All this can’t happen too soon in a world where the word education has come to mean analysis, test scores, and curricular objectives, losing its original meaning of drawing out. There are now so many criteria for identifying what’s wrong with a child that we too often forget the child himself. When we watch a child working from her own initiative, we can easily recognize the focused activity and movement that’s absent in so much of current educational practice.

Movement is life. Healthy children move***. And, in an environment that supports children’s active learning, the learning happens naturally and spontaneously. Sitting still in chairs for hours is simply unnatural. Our children do not have attention problems; they have a movement deficit.

I’m not talking about random or erratic movement, or about strength training or aerobic exercise. Infants and toddlers—without being “taught”—rapidly acquire skills of language and socialization while moving in highly coordinated ways. The question is: Why are they supposed to stop moving to learn? I see that individuals of any age can reclaim such natural coordination, along with a love and ease of learning, by doing simple movements, like the Brain Gym activities, that support stability, mobility, and sensorimotor skills. 


* Here are four very readable articles on this subject:
“‘Body Maps’ of Babies’ Brains Created” “Want to Improve Your Cognitive Abilities? Go Climb a Tree!” “Fidgeting May Benefit Children with ADHD”  “New Study Takes a Stand on Too Much Sitting”

** There are more than 100 pilot studies and anecdotal reports (done independently, voluntarily, without benefit of grants), correlating the Brain Gym activities to a variety of both academic and non-academic skills. These can be found in the Educational Kinesiology Research Studies Packet and FAQs, as well as in several books written on the Brain Gym® work. To see our Hearts at Play research references, click here:

***As recently exemplified by the Let’s Move! program, in the Western world and on other continents as well, parents and teachers are now beginning to recognize the importance of movement to their children’s growth, wellness, and success. In fact, the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition has updated the President’s Challenge Youth Fitness Test to reflect the latest science on kids’ health and promote active, healthy lifestyles rather than athletic performance and competition. The new Youth Fitness Program is a voluntary, school-based initiative that assesses students’ fitness-based health and helps them progress over time. has been primarily followed in terms of obesity rates, not attention or cognition.

Photo credit © Tamara Bauer |, used with permission

© 2013, revised 2016 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

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


Sensorimotor Learning Creates Memory Associations


Parents may not realize that infants and toddlers are already building their brains by developing an orienting system and movement skills that later support their more focal academic abilities. Skilled mentors use movement and play to help youngsters of any age access their inborn intelligence. Movement bestows a natural, lifelong adventure of learning. This is why a preschooler is capable of globally taking in the world, finding its meaning, and recreating it, and school-age children easily integrate the movement-based learning (with its multisensory rather than abstract orientation) that will be their entryway to linguistic facility. In contrast, when the muscles prepare for a fight-or-flight reaction, tension or restraint leads to stress, lack of new associations, and diminished learning.

Memory processing involves three levels: The human brain is designed to take in new information through memory and the senses. As the learner creates a field of associations, he interacts with each new event, sorts and identifies it, compares it to past associations (using short-term memory), and integrates it, through application, into his structuring of the world (using long-term memory). This ordering of the world in memory needs movement and sensory input for stable references. In this regard, the visionary educator Maria Montessori said that “The senses, being explorers of the world, open the way to knowledge.”

Educational psychologist Jane Healy confirms that sensory data is the first to be taken in by children for processing. This is the precursor to all other memory, and is, as she says,” the only part of the memory system that operates as efficiently in young children as it does in adults.”

Meaning is fundamental to memory. The greater the meaning of new learning, the more likely it is to be stored in long-term memory. And new learning, to be retained, needs to be meaningfully associated through the senses with what has already been learned. Healy describes the process by which all experience is internalized: “Children use many channels to store many little pieces, but meaning is the cement for the system.

So memories that are movement- and sensory-based—tied meaningfully to such specific senses as vision, hearing, and touch—are more likely to be retained. And, the more an impression is kept current in working memory by sensory review and rehearsal, the more readily it can be recalled.


Excerpted from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition © 2010 by Paul and Gail E. Dennison, Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc.: Ventura, CA, p. 3.

© 2013 by Paul 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.


A Master Teacher Creates a Context for Play


Nearly ten years ago, my friend Laura began telling me about a wonderful program called Education through Music (ETM) that engages learners in play and movement. As I learned more about it, I was delighted to realize that this was the same program that author and educator Joseph Chilton Pearce had recommended that Paul and I look into. It turns out that Pearce had recommended the Brain Gym® work to the ETM group, as well, including both programs as experiences he favored for the developing child. We wanted to find out more.

Paul and I finally got to meet Randal McChesney, ETM’s director, in the spring of 2004. Our initial experience with ETM was a half-hour session with about fifteen other adults—parents and educators—observing as Randy played Song Games with kindergartners in a public school classroom. We immediately recognized a master teacher at work.

Randy entered the circle of children with loving authority, skipping, singing, and modeling skills of positive social interaction. His movements, gestures, and overall expression were forthright and vigorous, communicating warmth and an invitation to listen or sing until your turn arrived.

Most of the children were immediately happily engaged. Those briefly at the periphery of the circle—one crying, another standing to the side, still others fidgeting or trying to bother their friends by nudging them with hands or feet—soon came of their own accord to join in. We saw the simple children’s game of Rig-a-Jig-Jig transformed into a way of drawing in learners to develop voice, attention, and play skills, as well as the prosody—the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech—that gives rise to an interest in language and reading. We also saw children discovering complex elements of emotional intelligence, including social cues, cooperation, deferred gratification, and mutual support in responding to opportunities.

When the children returned to their classroom, the adults gathered to discuss what we had seen. We were impressed by the calm maturity the children had exhibited in the safe context of the game. Paul commented to Randy, “You teach them as though you already know they can!” and Randy agreed. Paul and I recognized in Randy a like mind, and saw that many of the qualities we seek to develop in students through our Edu-K work—grounding, centering, lateral skills, ease of movement, self-expression, and a sense of community­—are also a focus of ETM.

This meeting was the beginning of a friendship and rich conversation about the nature of learning. Paul and I continue to exchange ideas with Randy, and to study with him as often as possible.

(To read an inspiring blog on how play can develop intrinsic motivation, see the guest blog with Randal McChesney.)

© 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.

Vision, Proprioception, and Tickling

I’m frequently reminded of how vision can be grounded through touch and movement. This morning I worked with a nine-year-old boy I’ll call Todd. His goal was to enjoy reading (he hadn’t yet learned how). The first part of the session centered around his learning the Cross Crawl to help him develop a sense of his whole body working as a unit as he walked and moved about. I used Dennison Laterality Repatterning, a 10-minute-or-so movement sequence, to help him become aware of his reciprocal movement and then distinguish that from stillness and the articulation of a single area, such as the hand needed for drawing and writing. Todd quickly made an improvement in his awareness of proprioception, what Paul calls the brain cells in the muscles, and seemed to settle more into his body.

Another important shift occurred when I traced Lazy 8s and the Double Doodle on Todd’s back. At first he pulled away as though he thought I was about to tickle him. So I asked him to trace circles on my back first, and showed him how by tracing lightly on his arm. Then I traced the Lazy 8s and Double Doodles on his back, and asked if he could tell what shapes I was making. Todd clearly enjoyed this activity, as he seemed to drop out of a mental space, quiet down, and relax enough to stop his fidgeting.

Todd then drew large Lazy 8s and Double Doodles on a flip chart. After that, he read with confidence and ease, even though I had given him no reading instruction per se. His mother commented that this was the first time she had heard him read with fluency.

The sometimes relentless tickling of children by parents and siblings is not uncommon, and I want to make a plea in this regard. Young children are still developing the proprioceptive awareness that lets them relax into their muscles and gives them spatial information about how different parts of their body relate. Tickling—especially when it’s unwanted—is now widely considered an unwise practice. It disrupts the steadiness given by the proprioceptive system and leaves a child ungrounded, as you can see when children pull away. Tracing the Double Doodle and Lazy 8s on a child’s back soothes and brings awareness to the muscles, developing trust and proprioception, as happened with Todd, and guiding the visual system into a relaxed state.

© 2012 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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