Watch someone do her first Cross Crawl* and what do you see? For people of any age, doing this activity inevitably brings a smile as they begin to experience the natural ease and rhythm of this integrating movement. Often someone doing the activity will break into a broad grin, pleasurably surprised to be coordinating the whole body at once in a complex movement pattern.
Paul first learned about the possible benefits of doing contralateral movement in the early 1970s during his studies at the University of Southern California, as he reviewed the research literature on the effect of crawling on academic achievement. The experts of that time had concluded that there was no learning advantage to having children replicate the crawling stage by crawling in the classroom.
Yet Paul had been included in several optometric assistant in-services in which he had observed children making immediate improvements in both visual skills and motor coordination after doing a standing contralateral motion that involved hitting a hanging ball. He described discovering firsthand the academic importance of the Cross Crawl in his first book, Switching On: the Whole-Brain Answer to Dyslexia, in the story of teaching this motor skill to a 10th grader who had been diagnosed as dyslexic and who was a student at one of his learning centers: For weeks now, in her tutoring sessions, Judy had been getting coaching in phonics and vocabulary building, yet she continued to struggle, word by word, to decode a fourth-grade level reading book.
On this day Paul had Judy pause in her reading so he could teach her the Cross Crawl version that he had recently learned. In the few minutes that it took Judy to internalize this contralateral pattern, Paul saw her unsteady and inconsistent motion become smooth, stable, and regular. He then asked her to read again, and heard her voice resounding with confidence, effortless phrasing, word recognition, and comprehension. Judy read like a different person.
How had doing a physical activity made such an immediate and apparent difference in that individual’s cognitive process? One hypothesis Paul formed then has since become more valid for both of us based on similar experiences with thousands of our students: For fluency, readers must be able to cross the visual midline where the left and right visual fields come together, and from where eye movement in any direction is available. The Cross Crawl’s contralateral movement pattern seems to help learners to experience coordinated physical integration as the left and right sides of the body work together. In a basic Cross Crawl or DLR, the hands cross the midline, connecting the tactile, visual, and kinesthetic midfield, where the two sides overlap.
In contemporary literature, it’s also become better understood that the brainstem modulates patterns, and locomotor movements are built on patterns. John Ratey, M.D, postulates that when information is arranged in patterns, it is neurologically more easily processed, retained, and retrieved. We further posit that rhythmic, coordinated movement restores the natural equilibrium lost when learners overfocus on symbols and phonetic elements—the decoding aspect of reading—thus inhibiting encoding and the ability to hear the story as whole language with meaningful words and phrasing. Ideally, the encoding of language provides a context for decoding—not the other way around.
The human body (muscle, bones, nerves, and blood vasculature) is largely bilaterally symmetrical. The sensory organs of eyes and ears function best when accessing the midfield where left and right sensory input overlap, providing a supportive whole-body context for one-sided activities and allowing the two sides to work together instead of inhibiting one to access the other.
Consider that children today engage in few activities, besides walking, running, or swimming, that emphasize contralateral motion, and even these three they do less than their parents did. Yet they take part in many activities that are one-sided. The one-sided activities, such as handwriting or using scissors, are important for developing dexterity and specialized skills, yet the use of one side at the expense of the other is quite different from the use of one side while resourcing both. It is this latter way that we teach in Edu-K.
Today’s most common whole-body activities are sitting at a computer or in front of a TV, neither of which is movement-rich. From eating to drawing, writing, moving a mouse, or riding a scooter (for adults, driving), one-sided motions predominate.
Doing the Cross Crawl supports a number of the elements that benefit a healthy human gait**:
- alternating left/right movement of both sides of the body
- a rhythmic shifting of weight between the left and right sides
- standing balance on one foot as the other leg is lifted (especially when the activity is done in slow motion)
- strength of quadriceps and hamstrings
- foot stability (plantar connection to the ground)
- alternating motion of the arms (in the walking gait, this reciprocal arm motion ideally focuses on the backswing, not the forward swing, which is a refinement that can be taught with such Cross Crawl variations as the Hopscotch, in the above illustration)
- dynamic whole-body relaxation while in motion
- keeping the toes pointed forward, outsides of the feet parallel
- the awareness of moving the legs in their proper left/right tracks (at pelvic width)
The Cross Crawl additionally provides a whole-body context to foster:
- crossing of the midline, as required for eye teaming when reading
- movement from the body’s midfield, where the left and right hemispheres work together, instead of inhibition of one side to access the other
- muscle proprioception of the body’s weight and motion in gravity, needed to develop a spatial map and orientation for movement in all directions
This dance-like movement, when done within a group, can help build social bonds:
- people doing the Cross Crawl together most often begin to do the movement in synchrony
- Cross Crawl variations allow for personal invention and expression
- physical movement within a group is one vital way by which we connect with our surroundings and ground ourselves in a social environment.
For many years the dance-like Cross Crawl has been Paul’s and my daily practice. We also enjoy doing it as we do the four PACE activities, for work, teaching, or simply before a long walk. We hear that, worldwide, more and more children are enjoying the Cross Crawl as they, too, take a quick break from sitting to rediscover their whole-body movement. What a wonderful way to celebrate our movement and aliveness!
Note: In the late 1970s, Paul and I also learned more about the Cross Crawl through our studies of the Touch for Health book and courses, developed by John Thie, DC. However, it was the optometric work and crossing of the midline that initially inspired Paul to develop Dennison Laterality Repatterning and to discover how to use the Cross Crawl activity to teach more effective movement and reading skills.
* The Cross Crawl is one of of the 26 Brain Gym® activities described in Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Dennison and Dennison, © 2010.
* Some people initially find it a challenge to access the complex coordination required for doing the Cross Crawl activity. If so, you may want to find someone who knows Dennison Laterality Repatterning (DLR), a simple process used to teach this level of integration so it becomes automatic. The DLR process is included in the course, Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life and is also offered by instructors through private session work. Click here for the name of an instructor near you.
**The Movement Dynamics course, © Dennison and Dennison, 1990 and 2006, includes 30 Cross Crawl variations, accessing three movement dimensions and taught in improvisational and dance-like sequences. The illustrations included in this article are from the manual, © Gail E. Dennison.
***References on the human gait:
Katy Bowman. Alignment Matters: The First Five Years of Katy Says. Propriometrics Press, 2013.
Michael Whittle. Gait Analysis: An Introduction. Butterworth-Heinemann, 4th edition, 2007.
Guertin, Pierre A. Central Pattern Generator for Locomotion: Anatomical, Physiological, and Pathophysiological Considerations. Frontiers in Neurology. 2012;3: 183. (Research on generation and modulation of rhythmic locomotor patterns.)
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