5 Easy Keys to Happy Eyes for Your School-Age Child

dreamstime_m_18030319Now that summer’s over and they’re back in school, most children are sitting more and moving less, and this relative inactivity extends to the eyes. Although schoolwork is highly vision-oriented, it doesn’t typically involve the range and diversity of visual skills that are called for in three-dimensional activities. And each school day may result in hours of hunching over and reading at near-point, followed by a similar scenario at night while completing homework.

Research increasingly points to movement as a basic physiological need, and today’s parents and educators are doing much to engage learners in movement breaks and outdoor activities, realizing that the visual and movement patterns they develop as they begin to do schoolwork will follow them for many years into the future. Yet not all schools or homework assignments currently reflect this thinking.

Of special concern are those children who are not accustomed to the demands of so much sitting and pointing the eyes at symbols. In an effort to keep up in the classroom, they can quickly fall into a habit of trying too hard and not looking up. During study time at school and at home, it’s especially important for parents and educators to connect through intermittent conversation and eye contact, so that a child learns to associate relaxed attention as the context for learning. Here are five simple things parents and educators can notice about how a child is using his visual skills, along with suggested Brain Gym(R) activities* that can help guide learners of any age in exploring and gaining access to a fuller range of their visual and movement capabilities:

1. Relaxed Near Focus – Does he or she squint when looking at homework, or sit too close to the television or computer screen? Some children haven’t yet learned to move their eyes together; others have yet to discover the benefits of looking up every few minutes to break a staring habit. In either case, looking away from a task or into distant vistas can help relax the focus. Option: Show your child how to do Brain Buttons (see video) while following a horizon line with the eyes by moving them side to side. Talk about the distant colors and shapes that you see, inviting him or her to explore these with you.

2. Neutral Head Position – Does she frequently tilt her head when reading or drawing? Head tilting can be due to not being able to turn the head easily from side to side, and often goes along with one-sided neck and shoulder tension or even headaches. Option: Teach your child to do The Thinking Cap as described here: Before doing the activity, help her notice how easily she can turn her head without lifting or jutting her chin. Show her how to use her thumbs and index fingers to pull her ears gently back and unroll them, top to bottom, three or more times. Have her again notice her head turning.

3. Fluid Eye Movement – Notice how he reads. If he often loses his place or says “gril” for “girl,” he may not be using his eyes as a team as he scans and decodes words, resulting in blurry or reversed images. Option: Drawing Lazy 8s in the air or on paper, or tracing Lazy 8s on his back, can help him to relax, centralize his vision, and improve his scanning skills (click for further description). In Edu-K, we find that when children learn to move their eyes, they naturally point them without being taught.

4. Left-Right Balance – Does she seem to dislike standing or walking? Children often lack a whole-body sense of left-right movement, or else inhibit this sense when they sit excessively. Yet the muscles, visual system, and inner ear must work together to provide balanced movement in gravity, even for sitting. Option: Teach your child The Cross Crawl (see video). When children get more comfortable with a rhythmic left-right movement pattern, their gross-motor activity provides a context for ease of fine-motor (including visual) movement.

5. Spatial Awareness – Does your child rarely look up or away from his book, iPad, or gaming device? Perhaps he is finding it easier to rely on a single, set visual focus than to look up and process depth and movement in the three-dimensional world. Option: Use any of the four activities described above, The Cross Crawl, The Thinking Cap, Brain Buttons, and Lazy 8s, to help activate varied visual and motor skills that will support your child’s well-being and ease of academic learning as they let him “unlock” his gaze from that book or screen.

Each playful Brain Gym® movement provides a shift in focus of 10 seconds or so–long enough for the eyes to readjust–or can provide a longer diversion as needed (as when dancing a rhythmic Cross Crawl with music). Remember also to invite frequent breaks from homework or other near-point activities to make playful eye contact.

 

*These four Brain Gym® activities, along with others that support sensorimotor skills, are described in detail in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, 2010, by Paul E. Dennison and Gail E. Dennison. 

**These and other sensorimotor skills  are taught experientially, through movement and play, in the courses Brain Gym® 101: Balancing for Daily Life and Visioncircles: 8 Spheres of Perceptual Development. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

**Many children will make a shift in these visual habits after just a few playful experiences, as described. If your child consistently experiences any of these challenges, it’s a good idea to call an optometrist to schedule a routine eye exam.

Photo Credit: © Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com

© 2013 by Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym®  International. 

Going Outdoors with Your Child to Share Visual Beauty

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-child-observing-tulips-garden-image9054535Vision is a learned skill of attention. It happens not in the eyes alone, but in the brain. Children don’t automatically know how to interpret the visual world. As parents, we can draw their attention to what excites and interests us. Discovering the beauty in the multitude of colors and shapes in nature brings joy to the early years and allows for much parent-child bonding. Even a few minutes in the outdoors, with its lovely trees, flowers, and growing things, provides many more near/far images, variations in color, and ambient shapes and surfaces than are seen indoors.

When we explore the endless nuances of motion and form in our nature experience, letting ourselves be surprised by what we see, we access different visual skills than when we look by habit alone. In his insightful book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Dr. Richard Louv* reports on some of the benefits of outdoor play to children’s sensory and visual development, as well as ways that nature ignites an innate sense of awe and curiosity.

As you step outside with your children, play, move, and spend time with them discovering the wonders of nature, you can guide them in a matter of minutes to develop many skills of attention, including these 7 often overlooked visual skills:

  • centralized focus as they gaze at the center and radiating petals of a flower
  •  following movement with their eyes, as you point out a flock of birds taking flight
  • enjoying distance vision by looking at mountains and horizons
  • discovering ambient shapes, like cloud formations . . . could it be a puppy, a lamb, a giant?
  • using depth perception: by measuring off the steps between near and far objects, like the distance between stones along a garden pathway.
  • distinguishing variegated color: admiring a plant and seeing how many colors you can notice in its stalk and leaves . . . if you were to paint it, what color combinations would you use?
  • identifying similarities: play identification games to help them see things and also build their vocabulary, as in playing “I Spy” with shapes (triangles; circles) or colors (sometimes, we can better see what we can name!).

According to the Journal of the American Optometric Association, 80 percent of classroom learning is based on vision. Yet much of this learning is oriented to left-right, near-point focus on a flat plane—a book, iPad, or writing paper. In a study done by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, researchers found that time spent outdoors correlated with a reduction in children’s risk for nearsightedness. Being in nature calls on less well-known attributes, as well as the skimming and scanning so essential to reading. And, as children explore the world, their eyes develop many further valuable skills that will bring joy and delight for a lifetime. Yours will, too!

 

* Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, North Carolina: 2005. Louv cites research showing children’s gains in emotional, attentional, sensorimotor, and other abilities in the presence of the natural world.

**American Academy of Ophthalmology. “More time outdoors may reduce kids’ risk for nearsightedness, research suggests.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 October 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111024084639.htm>

***The Edu-K Visioncircles course, developed by Gail, offers play and exploration along with 34 Vision Gym® activities to experientially develop these 7 visual abilities along with many other visual and sensorimotor skills. Click here to visit Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation for the name of a Visioncircles instructor in your area.

© 2013 by Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.

Photo © Skoric | Dreamstime.com

 

Five Minutes to Better Reading Fluency

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-little-boy-reading-book-image2627082Jared, age 8 and in the third grade, had been taught how to do Lazy 8s* in his school classroom. (One of 26 Brain Gym® activities, Lazy 8s is done by drawing a large 8 on its side, first with each hand separately and then with both hands together.) When his mother called me to set up a private session, she said that Jared initially liked doing Lazy 8s, as they helped him read better, and he had made some good improvements remembering his words. Yet over the summer, he seemed to have fallen behind in reading. Now that school and homework were beginning again, Jared was reading too slowly to keep up with his daily assignments, and he frequently complained about feeling tired or having his eyes bother him.

I asked Jared’s mother to have him bring to the session a favorite book that he liked reading, and that was easy for him. I talked with Jared about a goal to have more fun reading, and he was enthusiastic about this. I listened to him read as he carefully pronounced each word, one at a time, yet when I asked him what he had just read, he had no recall or understanding of the story content, even with help from the pictures.

Reading is a complex language skill involving the expressive encoding of speech and receptive decoding of listening modalities. Although it involves visual skills, reading is not a visual process. I have been a reading specialist for more than 40 years, and in the 1970s taught phonetic analysis and auditory discrimination daily at my reading centers. I’ve found that, for the thousands of readers of all ages and abilities with whom I’ve worked, auditory skills have rarely been the difficulty. In fact, most young people today have excellent speech and language skills. It’s the visual stress that inhibits language processing while reading.

Experts** tell us that the eye muscles can move as much as 10,000 times in an hour of reading; that means the eyes must be able to refocus effectively in order to take in information without backtracking. When the two eyes don’t point together as they cross the midline*** from the left to the right visual field, it will be easier to avoid the midline than to work on the midfield, where the eyes might see a blur, a double image, or the letter symbols appearing to move on an unstable background.

Even though Jared had done Lazy 8s and other Brain Gym® activities in school, I could see by the way that he moved, sat, and looked around as we talked that he was still avoiding crossing the midline. I asked him to follow my pen light with his eyes as I moved it slowly and horizontally (within reading distance) from left to right across his visual field. As Jared tracked the light back and forth, I perceived a hesitation and a slight adjustment of his head and eyes each time he crossed the midline.

The body’s vertical (lateral) midline describes a specific anatomical plane that runs through the navel, sternum, neck, and center of the head. I find that when learners know how to function in terms of this midline, they experience definitive left, right, and middle visual (and auditory) fields. I understand movement habits to be task specific—changing from one task, such as reading, to another, such as writing. When children are developmentally ready to read, they’re generally able to sit upright and move their eyes left and right without distorting their body or visual field as they shift from one task to another. When they lack this readiness, they often continuously misalign their eyes or body posture in order to adjust to the specific and changing visual and kinesthetic demands of using various tools, such as a book, tablet, computer screen, pen and lined paper, or white board.

Yet I find that young people (or anyone) must discover new movement habits intrinsically, for themselves. “Sitting up straight” cannot really be required or achieved by instruction. As with many things, there’s a difference between knowing what to do and knowing how to do it.

I asked Jared to draw some large Lazy 8s on my office chalkboard. He drew the 8s very quickly and with the center of the 8 in his right visual field, keeping his head turned slightly to the right to avoid the midline. I suggested that we do Lazy 8s together. I guided his hand to help him slow the movement enough that he really needed to focus on his hand motion and align his body’s midline (his sternum) with the midpoint of the Lazy 8. I talked him through the activity, helping him to identify the exact center of the 8 and to distinguish between the image of his hand moving up and over into the left visual field and that of it moving up and over into the right visual field.

I noticed how he moved his eyes. Each time that Jared moved his hand into his left visual field, his eyes would jump or backtrack as they had done earlier when he tracked the pen light. I helped him slow down even more with the upper left part of the 8, giving him time to adjust the teaming of his eyes into the left field. After a few times around both the left and the right sides of the 8, he began to easily anticipate the movement of his hand without his eyes wavering.

Suddenly he looked around the room and said, “Wow. The room just got bigger.” I laughed and said that sometimes when we get our two eyes working together as a team, we “switch on” and see more than we did before. A big part of my work with students is helping them slow down enough to notice changes like this, which, for me, are the real aha moments of learning. Such internalizing experiences create empowered learners who understand the learning process as personal and dynamic—often occurring in a matter of seconds—rather than impersonal and static, and only about the tedious taking in of more and more information.

I told Jared that I sometimes describe doing Lazy 8s as similar to slowly tracing the frame of a pair of large eyeglasses. Tracing the frame reminds us that we have two eyes and that, when we look through left and right lenses, we see both a left and right visual field. What happens when we put the eyeglasses on? We see only one image, the midfield, as the left and right sides meet on our midline, where the glasses sit on our nose. The Lazy 8s movement helps us find the exact center of our left and right fields and how they join to become the overlapping midfield—one single field of attention. This is the bilateral midfield where information processing best takes place.

After this short experience of doing Lazy 8s with understanding, Jared had no more difficulty tracking my pen light and was able to readily identify the midline and access the midfield. When I asked him to read again, he read with expression, speaking the words, phrases, and sentences as if he were simply telling me a story he had just heard.  As I’ve seen with thousands of learners of all ages and abilities, reading is easier and more fun when the eyes and the rest of the body are working together on the midfield. I love the simplicity of Lazy 8s for teaching this skill of awareness.

 

 *Lazy 8s is one of the Brain Gym® activities, from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, ©2010.

 ** See Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading.

***It’s my finding that early decoding for reading instruction, before children’s visual systems and whole-body movement skills have matured enough for near-point binocular focus, can contribute to reading challenges later on. I now teach synthetic phonics only during the spelling lesson; not for sounding out during reading. I want readers to experience the sounds and meaning available through a whole language approach to reading. Although many people doing the Lazy 8s improve their reading skills as quickly as Jared did, not everyone does. Jared had the vestibular balance and gross motor coordination to support his visual system, and was ready to cross his midline for reading.

© 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.

Photo credit: © Ctacik | Dreamstime.com, used with permission

Taking “Whole Brain” Vision to Moscow

Paul_Flowers2Although I’ve taught in more than 20 countries during the past 35 years, mid-July of this year I experienced my first trip to Moscow. In the 1980s biologist and educator Carla Hannaford of Hawaii first took the Edu-K work to Russia. She was followed there in the 1990s by educators and Brain Gym® instructors Joan Spaulding of Colorado and the late Dorothy H.L. Carroll of Pennsylvania, who taught hundreds of students. Psychologist Svetlana Musgutova, a resident of Moscow at the time, became a Brain Gym International Faculty member and continued to develop the community there for many years. Today, the major leaders of Edu-K once living in Russia have moved on to other locales. So Elena, my sponsor for this trip, requested that I bring my latest thinking to the Brain Gym Instructors and new enthusiasts there.

I found Moscow to be a sprawling city with a multitude of beautiful botanical gardens. On my first day there, Elena and her daughter, Knesia (also my translator), took me walking in the beautiful Tsaritsyno, the Queen’s Garden. On day two my dear friend of many years, Renate Wennekes from Germany, a Brain Gym International Faculty member, arrived to co-teach with me. That evening, we four enjoyed dining on the Moscow River cruise ship and sharing stories about our experiences teaching through movement.

Another evening Renate, Elena, Knesia, and I enjoyed seeing the rousing Russian National show “Kostroma!”* which includes vigorous Cossack dancing—something I’ve always loved to watch. Yet another time we walked around the city center seeing Red Square and the Kremlin, along with its red walls and towers. I was delighted to see St. Basil’s with its unusual architecture of four palaces and four cathedrals—many topped by golden or multicolored cupolas—which I had long heard about.** Wherever we went, I met people who were vigorous and robust, and who seemed typical of suburbanites everywhere, busy pursuing their day-to-day lives.

Active Independence or Passive Compliance 

For me, the real excitement of this journey began when I gave a public introductory talk at the Alpha Hotel. I noticed a woman whom I’ll call Ruth, sitting with friends in the center front row of the conference room. Through translation during the question and answer period (the participants spoke little English), I learned that Ruth was a 2nd grade teacher who had been using the Brain Gym activities with her elementary school students. Ruth expressed anger and frustration as she asked me why doing the activities hadn’t helped one seven-year boy in her class. This student, she said, refused to read his history assignment because it was on the topic of war. Even after he did the Brain Gym activities, he still refused.

I explained that the purpose of doing the Brain Gym activities is not to control someone’s behavior. Instead, it’s to give individuals the tools they need to become . Each of the specific 26 activities teaches a physical skill needed for classroom learning, such as sitting, head-turning, hand-eye coordination, and accurate use of tools—for example, how to best hold a pencil for writing and how to access eye-teaming skills when holding a book for reading. I elaborated that when the stressors around the mechanics of functioning are addressed, the natural mental acuity needed to learn is more available. I told Ruth that I think it’s wonderful for a seven-year old child to feel that he can choose what he will or will not read. This shows an active independence instead of the passive compliance we see in many schools and societies. Ruth nodded in understanding and agreement.

The Joy of Eye-Teaming

The next day, with Renate assisting, I began teaching my two-day course: The Dennison Approach to Whole-Brain Learning. I especially enjoy sharing this introduction to my Edu-K work with teachers, as they recognize the challenges to learning and can appreciate seeing people overcome them. It’s thrilling to watch students as they discover their learning profile and then use simple Brain Gym activities to access the learning midfield and make immediate and significant improvements in reading, listening, and writing skills.

One experience was especially meaningful for me. During the opening circle for the course, the participants introduced themselves, again through translation. When I asked who would like to improve their reading, Ruth (from the previous day) eagerly volunteered and told the group that, as a child, she had been told she had a lazy left eye and could do her best with her “good” eye. I had Ruth read aloud. She slowly and precisely read the Russian text left to right, focusing from her right visual field and carefully pronouncing every word. Afterwards, I asked her to say something about what she had read. She could not verbalize any of the content. I checked her ability to track, which requires crossing of the visual midline and seeing in the midfield where the left and right visual fields overlap. She was unable to access this skill.

I encouraged Ruth to choose from the Midline Movement category whatever Brain Gym activity she felt called to. Together, she and I did about 30 seconds of Belly Breathing as the first part of the Learning Menu. Suddenly, Ruth joyfully exclaimed: “I cannot believe it; I can see with my left eye again!” We continued the menu by doing the Lazy 8s and the Cross Crawl.

As a post-check, I asked Ruth to track across her visual midline and focus in her midfield, which she was now able to easily do. She then read a new text, with ease and fluency. She was able to put the text into her own words without difficulty. I could see that Ruth was able to move her eyes smoothly over the words while listening to herself say them–that is, she was able to think while looking, and so access her comprehension.

Ruth said, “Now I understand what you mean by the physical skills of learning. Now that I can see without straining my eyes, I can hear myself thinking and I can trust my eyes to see the information I need.”

Although during the course the translation into Russian had sometimes sometimes presented a challenge, I felt that for most of us that day the language of movement transcended any linear thinking.

 

*See a segment of this dance on YouTube.

**See our facebook page for a photo book from Paul’s trip.

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

See also Discovering the Reading Midfield

Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading

Reading a printed page presents its own issues, as there is much more to reading than simply looking at an object. Experts have said that the eye muscles can move nearly 10,000 times in an hour of reading; that means the eyes must be able to refocus effectively in order to take in information without backtracking. http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/muscles.html

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

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

Learning to Read: The Magic of Words on Paper

HeartsatPlay_ResourceSite_HomePage_workinaction_cross-crawlJosie, age nine and in the third grade, is an attentive student who loves sports, art, and to play outdoors. Reading came late to her, and she has never found it easy. She was tutored early on by her grandmother, Jane, who listened patiently and pronounced for Josie any new word she didn’t recognize. It was Jane who called me to set up a private session for Josie when she noticed that her reading had become more strained this school year.

When we met, I asked Josie what she liked about school. She responded in a halting, stilted way, saying that she liked playing with her friends. Josie then read a paragraph from a book she’d brought with her. I noticed that she read methodically, one word at a time, in a dull, flat monotone.  She knew most of the words, yet struggled along with little apparent enjoyment of the process.

A closer look revealed that Josie was holding the book in her right visual field. I checked her eyes for left-to-right tracking across the visual midfield, where the left and right visual fields overlap and the eyes converge for binocular integration.  Each time we crossed the midline, Josie lost sight of the target, unable to maintain her focus.

For beginning readers, the natural flow of informational learning starts with auditory perception as a child listens to people talking, or to fascinating stories being read or told. Like language, reading is first and foremost a verbal and auditory process. Relating it to prior experiences in memory benefits from integration of the auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile areas of the brain and the ability to interpret such received information as meaningful.

Learning to read requires simultaneously holding what is familiar (stored in words as a verbal code) and relating new information to experiences held in memory. It’s imperative to the learner’s long-term thinking success that the wholeness of language and its meaning is not broken into small, disconnected information bits as he reads. Eye-movement patterns are necessary, yet incidental, to the mental aspect of reading, and need to be so fluid, automatic, and stress-free that the auditory-language processes can proceed without inhibition. Language and meaning must always lead, and never follow, visual input.

Yet, for many, reading is about focusing on linear input, one word or phonetic sound at a time. This is a lesser aspect of reading, and one that, in its overemphasis, teaches excessive eye-pointing and an inaccurate idea of the reading process. This fragmenting of language can affect not only the way a child learns to think, but even their everyday way of speaking, as it had for Josie.

I invited Josie and her grandmother to do some enjoyable movements with me. I played some music, and the three of us put on our Thinking Caps, rubbed our Brain Buttons, did the Cross Crawl, and explored some slow Lazy 8s and the Double Doodle. We completed with Belly Breathing. After about fifteen minutes of the activities, Josie was able to track a moving target of focus with ease and facility, both left to right and right to left, across her reading midfield.

I asked Josie if she felt ready to return to her book, and she started to read again from where she’d left off.  It was like listening to a different person. Josie was now relaxed, and was telling us the story in her own natural speaking voice, with fully animated expression and obvious comprehension of where the narrative was headed.

“What was that about?” I asked. This time, Josie was able to answer without hesitation, easily turning her thoughts into fluent and meaningful language.

Jane was amazed. “How long will this last?” she asked. I told her that, like all physical skills, if this new way of reading is fully learned and becomes a new habit, it will last indefinitely. Josie will now prefer to read by staying in the midfield instead of avoiding it.

To reinforce the new skill, I recommended as homeplay the Thinking Cap, the Double Doodle, and Lazy 8s before and after reading, so Josie could quickly orient her body to her auditory and visual midfield to assure a happy reading experience every time. When they said goodbye, Josie and her grandmother told me they were looking forward to doing the activities together at home.

 

See also Discovering the Reading Midfield

Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading

Reading a printed page presents its own issues, as there is much more to reading than simply looking at an object. Experts have said that the eye muscles can move nearly 10,000 times in an hour of reading; that means the eyes must be able to refocus effectively in order to take in information without backtracking. http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/muscles.html

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

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

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