By: Dr. Kari Miller
There are about as many nerve cells in the brain as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The unique set of connections between neurons that each of us develops determines how we view the world, shapes our future experiences, and indeed, determines who we are. Successful students have developed rich, connected networks of neurons. Many factors encourage neurons to branch and communicate with each other. In this newsletter, our topic will be the vital role of movement in brain development.
In our quest to fathom intelligent behavior, we have failed to appreciate that learning does not occur strictly in the mind. Learning and creativity are a “whole body” phenomenon and cannot occur independently. We teach “to the head” only, asking students to sit in chairs for long periods of time, listening and looking almost exclusively at abstract symbols, even when they are very young. We don’t fully appreciate that the mind cannot excel without the support of the body. We don’t “get it” that we must move to learn.
What is the role of movement in learning?
Movement stimulates the growth of neural networks upon which learning depends. It affords us the opportunity to explore our world and gather the sensory data that fuels the development of intelligence, in other words, it provokes learning. Movement provides feedback that the brain requires in order to learn. Movement allows us to express knowledge and therefore advance to the next plateau in our understanding.
What can parents do to encourage stronger learning in their children?
Not very many years ago, children played in their yards for hours each day. They ran, climbed trees, built forts, made mud pies and pretended to fly. These experiences developed rich neural networks that supported brain development in these children. Young people today spend far less time moving. They watch considerably more television and play significantly more video games.
We can integrate movement into our children’s daily lives and augment their capacity to succeed. In particular, children who have learning issues benefit from the systematic inclusion of movement into their daily lives.
Each “body” learns in its own unique way. The following activities can be stimulating to the development of strong brain networks. Allow your child to experiment during homework time and find the particular combination of activities that are most effective.
Most students remember new information better when they talk, write or draw. Encourage your child to “teach” new information to others in the household. For those students who anchor information best by writing, provide them with a white board and erasable markers or encourage them to take notes on paper. It isn’t always necessary to keep notes or read them later in order to anchor information in memory. The act of writing down the information promotes the development of connections among concepts. Demonstrating the concepts of the learning is another powerful way to incorporate the new learning into existing neural networks. Allow your child to act out what has been read, build a model, draw a diagram or chart, sing or dance.
Many students attend, concentrate and learn better when engaged in a repetitive, low concentration task such as doodling, folding paper, rocking, or squeezing a ball. Your child can also try walking around the room while reading or studying. Suggest to your child that he or she do this every 15 minutes while completing homework.
Because the mouth is an important site of neural integration and is closely tied to brain development, some students find that chewing can be a highly integrating activity that promotes concentration and understanding. Chewing gum can actually be an effective way to focus! It’s best to keep it simple. Crunchy, spicy, salty or sour foods can be effective concentration boosters. Have your child try carrot sticks, sugar free gum, pretzels or a small sour candy.
Encourage your child to engage in cross lateral physical activity for five minutes every hour. Cross lateral movements engage hand and foot on opposite sides of the body. Most of these movements are more effective when done standing. The addition of rhythmic music provides a boost. Some cross lateral movements students enjoy are:
- Touch hand (or elbow) to opposite knee.
- Lazy 8. Use one hand to trace a large infinity sign in front of the body, following the hand with the eyes. Alternate hands and continue.
- Cross the arms in front of the face in the shape of an “X” tracing a lazy 8. Be sure to watch the path of the 8 while tracing it.
- Karate Cross Crawl: Kick while punching or chopping with alternate hand and foot (right hand chops while left foot kicks).
- Cross Crawl Sit-ups. While lying on the back with hands clasped behind the head for support, sit up and touch the right elbow to the left knee. Alternate touching elbow to opposite knee.
- Double Doodle. Draw a design with both hands simultaneously. Be sure the designs are mirror images of each other, rather than facing the same direction.