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.



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 | Dreamstime.com, 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.


The Deskbound Brain

Frustrated Student WritingIn most school classrooms, children are too sedentary. Where their grandparents and great grandparents counteracted all that deskbound sitting by walking to and from school, working on the farm, or going out in nature to play, most modern kids come home from school just to sit indoors texting, doing homework, watching TV, or playing digital games.

During one of Gail’s recent classroom presentations of the Brain Gym®  activities to some grade-schoolers, more than two-thirds of the students answered yes when she asked if they sometimes found it difficult to pay attention due to tension, stress, or discomfort from sitting too long. Another third raised their hands when asked if their eyes sometimes felt strained or tense when they were reading. Imagine the challenge of having to override those bodily signals in the midst of the learning process!

Regarding research on movement and learning, in the years that I’ve been developing and teaching Edu-K I’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth. Since the 1940s, many researchers (Montessori, Getman, Gesell, Kephart, Barsch, Ayres . . .) have seen the movements of infant development as essential to school-readiness and have acknowledged the learning benefits of continued integrative sensorimotor activity. Yet others who’ve done research summaries on movement have questioned those findings as being inconclusive or unsupported.

Today, a growing number of experts are pointing out that movement is essential to learning. John J. Ratey, M.D., states in SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, that “When we exercise, particularly if the exercise requires complex motor movement, we’re also exercising the areas of the brain involved in the full suite of cognitive functions. We’re causing the brain to fire signals along the same network of cells, which solidifies their connections.” In A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain, Ratey says, ” . . . exercise raises the level of all kinds of brain chemicals . . . which make most people feel brighter and more alert. It also releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein I call ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain, which helps build and maintain the connections between brain cells.”

Educational neuroscientist David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, translates current research into strategies. He writes, “The more we study the role of the cerebellum, the more we realize that movement and learning are inescapably linked.”

In discussing the importance of movement to learning, Sousa says: “The mainstream educational community has often regarded thinking and movement as separate functions, assigning them different priorities. Activities involving movement, such as dance, theater, and occasionally sports, are often reduced or eliminated when school budgets get tight. But as brain studies probe deeper into the relationship between body and mind, the importance of regular movement breaks and alternatives to sitting passively must be taken seriously by educators.”


© 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.


Thoughts on Randal McChesney’s Article on Play and Motivation

Boy with a Book

I have greatly enjoyed reflecting this week on the views expressed by educator Randal McChesney in his insightful article for Hearts at Play. In Edu-K courses and private sessions, parents often comment that they’d like to know how to better motivate their children to read and study on their own and otherwise apply themselves in school. In this regard I appreciate how, in the article, Randy weighs the shortcomings of using extrinsic rewards, such as money, to motivate young people, and points to research on intrinsic motivation that shows it to be the best way for children to learn. It’s also, he makes clear, the best way to encourage children to treat one other with respect, regard, and dignity.

In his essay, Randy encourages the development of intrinsic motivations—those behaviors that arise from within the individual, the fire that moves them to interact and to be at play with each new learning challenge before them. In the Edu-K work as in Education Through Music, we see how often movement itself, and especially moving playfully with others, invites intrinsic motivation and authentic learning.

I agree with Randy’s thoughts on how effective learners build their habits of sustained motivation. It’s my intent, when working with Edu-K learners, to help them discover how to initiate motivated behavior by making a personal choice to meet a goal. For a young child having difficulty with reading, this might mean choosing to bring a reading book home from school—even if just to look at the pictures. Intrinsic joy is experienced when the student takes each measured step toward such a realistic intention. The pleasure of learning comes as the child overcomes obstacles toward his goal; for example, when he looks up new vocabulary words as he reads, or asks for a parent’s help, instead of putting the book aside. Such efforts can be seen as the vigor and attentiveness that go into following through, as when he picks up the book again and again until reaching the very last page.

In Edu-K, as in Randy’s work, we celebrate new learning as its own reward. From the pleasure of getting it to the final attainment of got it!, seeing people access their intrinsic motivation for a task is thrilling to behold.


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

Getting it and got it! are part of the Learning Flow, from Brain Gym(R): Teacher’s Edition.

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

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International. Click here to find an instructor in your area.

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