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.


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.

Play: The Intrinsic Motivation for Childhood Learning

Randal A. McChesney


Everywhere I travel in my work in teacher education, serious questions arise about how to motivate children to learn and inspire them to treat each other with respect, regard, and dignity. Increasingly, these questions reveal helplessness and near desperation on the part of adults stymied in their contact with children. Whether wealthy, of moderate means, or disadvantaged, it seems we have somehow become bewildered, even afraid, when our children exhibit uneven or inadequate effort and motivation as they present themselves for schooling. What is most worrisome is that we seem to have reached for the most disparate and desperate of solutions, making any national approach to solving the problem nearly out of reach.

The problem is scarcely new. Tomes of information and opinion exist about motivation and effort. Alfie Kohn, Brafman and Brafman, Jane Healy, Joseph Chilton Pearce, Dr. Bruce Perry, Pintrich and Schunk . . . the list of those reporting the problem and posing ways to think about and solve the situation is lengthy and impressive. The views coalesce around three important and difficult-to-address conclusions:

1) The problem generally orients from the earliest years of childhood.

2) While such external rewards as over-praise, payment for achievement, or other coercive structures are alluring when immediately successful, these strategies can be ultimately addictive (Brafman and Brafman, 2009, et. al.).

3) External incentive can seriously undermine resiliency when children are faced with hard challenges or need to develop a life orientation other than one-upmanship or outright greed. Empathy, kindness, cooperation in group tasks, etc., constitute a more effective response to situations in which external reward cannot or ought not to be a goal.

The problem may be best revealed by those who are beyond schooling. I live in a high-density Microsoft/ area of Seattle. It is not uncommon for me to attend seminars or engage in casual conversations at the University of Washington regarding the state of workplace ethics and behavior. Across the board in work environments where demand for team thinking and cooperation is high comes this complaint from managers, human resource directors, and hiring executives: more and more young workers expect higher pay for less work, overestimate their workplace effort, are too apt to cut corners to get ahead, and, when asked to spend extra hours of work in accomplishing tasks, often ask, “What will I get for doing so?”

One software giant’s upper-division manager recently opined (referring to his young new hires), “They come from school wanting to know: ‘How soon can I get to a top-dollar job, and who do I meet to start that process?’ It’s a remarkable and unusual person who asks, instead, ‘What value can I add to this company (which might produce the salary I’m seeking)?’”

Back in school, debates are now raging over paying children with food, points for rewards, or, in the extreme, money for basic, considerate behavior once expected as a matter of human interaction, impulse management, or effort on tasks and tests. More than a few families these days offer monetary rewards for grades. And, as a trusted colleague and teaching friend reported to me, a school psychologist recently asked her elementary school faculty, “If you would not go to work without being paid, why would you go to school?”

The answer, obvious as it is, is not the subject of this article (although perhaps it ought to be). The benefits of social and work apprenticeship in societal status recognition are long-documented in anthropological research. When we examine the habits of the most effective learners (not necessarily the most gifted, talented, wealthy, etc.), it is apparent from the research that motivation is completely aligned with the habits of effective learning. Think of it as a sort of hierarchy, a pyramid.

Atop the pyramid is achievement. Whether in a grade, an ability to monitor one’s interactions with others, or the garnering of a coveted job, achievement for most of us is the result of sustained motivation over time and over distractions. Motivation is the sub-tier girder for transporting us in our achievement arc, whether it is to get home in a blizzard or find a way to get someone to be our friend. We succeed, we fail, we take a large step here, a small step there. The process can take hours, days, weeks, or years, depending on us, what we’re seeking to do, and how effective our strategies to get there are. Emotion, by the way, plays a very significant, and often ignored, prime-time role in our motivation, and is fascinating to explore and start to understand. Think of motivation as a sustaining wind blowing our attempts forward over the time we take to try to achieve any goal.

The infrastructure for effective achievement does not stop with motivation, however. Underpinning all sustained motivation is effort: the ability to add emotional, physical, mental, and willful “oomph” to our attempts to accomplish what we want. Sustained effort is the sure foundation upon which consistent motivation is built. And it is here, in the moment-by-moment, day-by-day orientation to tackling the tasks, distractions, failures, successes, and challenges of our lives, that we have the opportunity to build the “muscle” for our life-span achievement.

It is here that the brain-based research is perhaps the most clear on at least two points:

  • Motivation is most predictable, most assuredly available to us, when we most need it (as in those really hard-to-manage tasks and situations), and least roller-coastered when it comes from within us as an “interior locus of control” (Pintrich and Schunk). In simple terms, we are set up, from our earliest experiences of crawling around on the floor and reaching for everything in sight as we crawl, to do what we do for the sake of doing it first and being “paid” for it later—as a result of our effort and motivation not as a means of securing it. Again, we benefit from an abundance of life-span situations where appreciating experiences and achievements for their own intrinsic value is an assumption in our lives.
  • Our motivation is best supported when we believe that effort, rather than natural or innate talent, helps us accomplish things. If we learn from the earliest age that immediately adding effort to anything not easy for us to get is likely to get us through (“If at first you don’t succeed, don’t give up; you can do it!”), we are far more predictable and reliable partners when the going gets tough. It also tends to make us tougher when the going gets tough (resiliency), and more likely to act altruistically in situations where doing the right thing may, in fact, cost us something.

Achievement over our life-span is best assured—particularly in tasks that don’t lend themselves to being “paid” (leadership quality, teamwork, sharing and building on ideas, tasks requiring an emotional component or sympathy/empathy)—when we are used to feeling self-satisfaction that we did our best, that we will keep trying when things get hard, and that we can—and should—call on others for help when we can’t pull the load alone.

Where, then, does the research point us in securing this for our children from their earliest years? Play. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has encountered the play state in children. Every single, solitary characteristic of play (visible, by the way, in fMRI images, if you require such evidence) points to effective motivation and effort orientation. And play draws us inevitably into situations in which we “do stuff” simply for the reward of enjoying how it turned out (think: building a sand castle at the beach or your local sand-pile, hiking to the very top of that hill over there, walking around the block two extra laps, taking in the neighbor’s garbage can, saying “I’m sorry” first), time and time again. In fact, this is the very definition of play.

Many of us are bewildered by play: How do we do it? What good is play in teaching children anything? The answer to the first question is simple: observe a child who is at a beach or in a sand box, or who has just appropriated an unused cardboard box (TV turned off, please). Sit back, watch, and wonder . . .

Play is also, to a certain degree, a learned behavior. We actually get better at play by playing with others who really know their stuff. There are high-quality groups expert at promoting and provoking childhood play: I would start with the Brain Gym program and our own work with Education Through Music (, among others. These resources are steeped in the understanding of play, provide high-quality experiences in genuine play for children across ages and cultures in America, and, most important for me, are nonprofit in their orientation. Think of it as “playing” even at business!

The second question, What good is play in teaching children anything? is highly common in a culture of quid pro quo such as ours increasingly becomes. This question, of course, generally misses the crucial developmental nature of play itself. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that the answer is also well documented (start with Stuart Brown’s Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul). The vast neural architecture each child is building for a lifetime of achievement and societal import demands a deeply respectful response to both its complexity and its enormous possibility. The role of play in this cannot be overstated . . . and is, for now, a conversation for another time.

© 2013 by Randal McChesney. All Rights Reserved.


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