For newborns, life begins with a joy of learning. Parents can see that, for the infant, everything is new and absorbing. Fresh discoveries are made moment by moment. Although a newborn’s brain weighs only about 25 percent of its eventual adult weight, by age three it will have produced billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of synapse connections between these cells.
Never is the learning curve so steep as it is in the first seven years of life. During these formative years, a child will follow an innate impulse to move their whole body, to creep or crawl, to walk, to skip, to speak a language, to relate to others, to communicate feelings and needs, and to explore and interact with his environment using his eyes, ears, and hands in a total focus of his absorbent mind. His ability to make choices and to move autonomously in relationship to the pull of gravity happens concurrently.
What is learning, then, and how do children actually learn best? Is there any research to show that children learn effectively sitting in a chair at a desk and reading textbooks, or answering test questions, focusing on information, without any apparent personal motivation beyond that of a grade?
The word education comes from the root word “educere,” meaning to lead or draw out. This is not about memorizing or “stamping in” disconnected information. The Brain Gym® approach to learning is through the joy of play and movement activities. The intent is to stabilize the physical skills of learning so that the mental skills can proceed as part of discovering how to think and solve problems within a context of inquiry, practice, and application. It’s the exploratory practice and application that makes learning real and transferable to ever-new learning situations. Such self-initiated learning questions the traditional classroom or homework approach as being inconsistent with modern neuroscience. It turns out that intelligence is not a fixed IQ score; nor is it planted firmly in the brain from birth. Rather, it forms and develops through the entire lifetime.
The fascinating science of neuroplasticity, intensively researched for two decades, shows that natural, self-motivated learning literally grows the brain. According to author, neurologist, and educator Judy Willis, neuroplasticity is best understood as the selective organization of neuronal connections. This means that when people physically practice an activity or access a memory, their neural networks—groups of neurons that fire together, creating electrochemical pathways—shape themselves according to that activity or memory. These brain pathways are like a system of freeways connecting various cities: the more “automobiles” traveling to a certain destination, the wider the “road” that carries them.
Neuroscientists have been chorusing “Cells that fire together, wire together” since the late 1990s, meaning that if you perform a task or recall some information that causes different neurons to fire in concert, it strengthens the connections between those cells. Over time, the connections become strong, hardy systems that link various parts of the brain, and stimulating one neuron in the sequence is likely to trigger the next one to fire. Thus, says Judy Willis, “When you help your child grow in skills, strategies, and higher levels of thinking, he becomes increasingly engaged in learning, in and out of school. . . . Positive expectancy changes brain neurochemistry, which increases your child’s brain growth and development.*
In advancing the Brain Gym model, I drew from the work of respected educators who had studied the growth of the natural learner for many years. Those pioneers in the field of education, including Marie Montessori, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, John Holt, and William Glasser, all understood that the child is the curriculum, and is always more important than any subject matter to be memorized. This is especially so now, when any inquisitive child who wishes to pursue her own self-initiated inquiry can find such information on the Internet.
When young children go to school, they most often take with them their initial passion for learning. Those who have had rich experiences of whole-body movement and hand-eye exploration have an advantage over those that are less prepared to sit still and think. For children who are ready, the new knowledge and experiences that might await them there can feel like a thrilling prospect. Most youngsters want to learn and do their best in school. Some successfully maintain their enthusiasm for learning through the school years and even through life. Such students tend to become leaders who radiate their love of life.
Unfortunately, through tests, report cards, and comparisons to others, all too many lose that joy of learning, living in a constant state of fight or flight that affects not only muscular tension but also sensory abilities. They might struggle with the physical skills of sitting, eye-teaming to read, or relaxing the hand to write, and might not get the coaching they need from their parents or teachers. For various such reasons, discouragement sets in. “I hate school” becomes associated with the learning process. In a world of abundant opportunity, far too many children give up on themselves and hold back from taking the risk to do their best.
Once the stress reflex has limited a child’s natural joy of learning through movement and play, how can adults help to restore it? As parents and teachers, we need to notice the signs that children are becoming stressed or discouraged and be there for them, supporting them to restore curiosity and engagement as they move, play, stumble, get up again, and reach for the novel and stimulating experiences upon which they can build their learning. We can guide them to cultivate sensory modalities, rather than override them by excessing sitting or near-point focus. As the adults in their world, we must model for them our own love of movement and learning and the risk-taking that expands our own horizons. Are we increasing our capabilities? Are we growing ourselves and our own brains? Are we excited about life? Or have we allowed ourselves to keep repeating the same movement patterns, thoughts, and negative attitudes—just to survive? If we’re simply surviving, we might actually be moving backward rather than forward. Life is a process of growth and discovery, not maintenance of the status quo.
I envision a learning environment connected with the senses, nature, and the community, where pleasure, critical thinking, high self-esteem, and lifelong learning are honored as capabilities of each and every child. A child-centered education draws out and builds upon prior experience and knowledge. I believe that children are better at constructing their own knowledge than we will ever be at knowing how to break what they need down into subjects and sequences and lessons that they must tediously work through in order to emerge at the end educated. For this reason, play and the freedom to move and explore are paramount.
*Willis, Judy. How Your Child Learns Best: Brain Friendly Strategies You Can Use to Ignite Your Child’s Learning and Increase School Success, © 2008, Sourcebook, Inc., p. 275.
Photo ID 31251723 © Waldru | Dreamstime.com, used with permission.
© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in your area.
Now 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.
© 2013 by Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.
Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International.
Dear participants in the Brain Gym® International Conference 2013,
We’re sending a big thank you to Henry Remanlay and the Indonesian network, Foundation staff members, the International Faculty, the keynote presenters, and all who will be contributing to make this year’s “Balance in Abundance” a successful event. Congratulations on joining together to celebrate learning through movement and the Brain Gym program in the sensuous beauty of Bali, Island of the Gods!
The Brain Gym work continues its steady expansion. More people everywhere are realizing the importance of movement to their learning and everyday function, and the Brain Gym activities and 101 course remain unrivaled in scope, simplicity, and regard for the learner through self-actualizing activities. Neuroscience is starting to catch up with our commonsense understanding of movement and optimal brain/body functioning. In today’s world of technology, near-point skills, and passive sitting, we’re finding the Edu-K work to be more important than ever—not only for schoolchildren but for people of all ages.
Although we won’t be able to join you this year, our hearts are with you and we’re continuing to support your success. Our latest calling has been the creation of this Hearts at Play Learning Resource site, where you’ll find blogs and videos to answer many of the how, what, and why questions you’ve asked us through the years. We trust that you’ll also find this site useful in creating immediate interest in your courses and private sessions.
May the Bali event fulfill your personal and professional goals, and may we all keep moving with joy!
Love to all,
Paul and Gail
(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
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.
In 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.