How Movement Helps the Brain
The year I taught fifth grade found me on the second floor of a school building erected in the 1920’s. There was only one third, fourth, fifth and sixth grade on that floor, and there were four us of who taught up there. We were used to helping each other out, but when the school secretary informed us after lunch one day that the music teacher was not coming and no substitute was replacing her that afternoon, we were a sorry lot— each of us had lost a precious half hour of prep time. I saw this as a golden opportunity to demonstrate the importance of movement in learning. I immediately volunteered to take all 80 students to the school gym for 30 minutes and guide them through some easy physical movements designed to integrate their left and right sides (laterality) and calm their nervous systems. The students I returned to class were so receptive to the afternoon lessons that my colleagues were first amazed, then delighted.
Before describing some of the movements I used that day, I’ll provide some background on why movement is such an important part of learning: Every movement sends impulses to the brain, providing information about changes in position and location of the body in space. These sensations provide self images which is how we go about creating what we know and how we behave. (Hannaford, 2005). Learning where we are in time and space begins in the womb, develops during our first years in life and is utilized throughout our adult years. For example, the Moro reflex, an involuntary reaction to threat, acts as a survival mechanism in the first months of life to alert, arouse and summon assistance. As adults we have remnants of that reflex when we are startled by a loud noise or interrupted suddenly when engrossed in an activity. Yet, most of us calm down quickly. If the Moro reflex remains active beyond the first few months of life, the baby, who will become our student, will be hypersensitive to stimuli. This may be exhibited by free-floating anxiety, mood swings, tense muscle tone and poor breathing. (Goddard, 1995).
Although developmental specialists have long recognized that movement is important for development of the nervous system and that young bodies need free play to learn how to control their bodies spontaneously, our culture remains movement deprived. We are placing our babies in walkers and providing insufficient floor time for them to crawl and creep to develop their vision. We are placing our babies in front of two-dimensional television screens at a time when a three-dimensional world is essential to help them develop their vision. We are handing our infants electronic games that force their vision into a focal point that their eyes are not ready to handle. When children don’t know how to point their two eyes on a line of print without seeing double or losing their place, there is no point in asking comprehension questions. (Dennison, 2006).
As educators, many of us are familiar with the importance of physical movement. Ask any teacher what it’s like to teach a class of students who missed a recess or gym class. We notice a marked lack of focus during afternoon lessons. Who among us wouldn’t want his or her students to improve their ability to focus? Yet, it has been a hard sell to incorporate physical movement to help students focus more effectively during literacy or other lessons. A major reason for this resistance is because many educators perceive learning as a mental act that exclusively involves the intellect. (Dennison, 2006).
I’ve personally experienced the often overwhelming number of items that educators have on their teaching agendas. That’s why the movement exercises that follow only take a few minutes each and blend easily into literacy lessons. They help the eyes, ears and hands team up in more effective ways for reading and writing. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to do these movements, so relax and play with ways to adapt them to your classroom needs.
When I took those 80 students to the gym class, one of the first movements we did was designed to support laterality, which is the integration of the left and right sides of the body. We must use both hemispheres of the brain to be maximally proficient at anything. (Hannaford, 2005). Reading requires that both eyes team up and move across the body’s midline so that words can be read from the left to right. For most people the brain’s right hemisphere sees the big picture and the left side sees the details. For reading, one side of the brain is comprehending the big picture and the other side is decoding the print.
An effective way to promote integration of the two hemispheres is “cross crawls.” While standing, slowly touch the right hand or elbow to the left knee, then the left hand or elbow to the right knee. Repeat this motion for a minute or two. Do the cross crawls slowly for optimal integration. (Heilberge, Wilson and Heiniger-White, 2000). It has been my experience that some students who are stuck in some developmental reflexes will find this difficult and will touch their elbows to their knees on the same side of their bodies and not cross their midlines. Imagine, then, how difficult reading would be for them. In these cases, I point to their elbows and visually guide their elbows to the opposite knees with my finger. If it is still challenging, I have them sit while they cross their midlines from elbows to knees.
I have also noticed that some students can cross the midline but rush through the movements in order to maintain them. This is particularly true for students who tend toward hyperactivity. Because my intention is to help them slow down their movements so they can move and listen at the same time, I challenge them, in a playful spirit, to slow down to half-time. When they have accomplished that task, I challenge them again to slow the movement down half as fast. This gives them opportunity to teach themselves what it feels like to slow down. This empowers them and saves me, the teacher, from being seen as nag. Variations of the cross crawl and other movements can be found in Brain Gym: Teacher’s Edition (revised) by Paul and Gail Dennison. S’cool Moves for Learning by Debra Wilson Heilberger and Margot C. Heiniger-White is another excellent resource filled with easy movements to use in the classroom.
Figure 8’s on Paper
The figure 8 is another excellent tool for developing laterality. Think of the figure 8 horizontally rather than vertically. I tape a 9 x 12 sheet on each student’s desk and draw a vertical line down the middle of the page. I then have each student, in a sitting position, align the center of his or her midline with the drawn line. Then I have students take a crayon in their dominant writing hands, start at the midline and move to the left to make the horizontal 8 which activates the right spatial hemisphere and move around to finish the 8 on the right. I involve students’ auditory processing systems by having them join in the chorus, “Up to the left and around. Cross the middle and up. Around, down, and back to the middle.” (Dennison, 1994). When students complete three 8’s, I have them switch to their other hand. After three more 8’s, I have them use both hands. (This is why taping the paper to the desk is a good idea.) Be on the lookout for students who want to start on the right. Since you are helping the students work spatially, you want to guide them to move to the left to help them see the big picture. Again, my language is friendly and playful. Since some students like to start toward the right, I challenge them to see what they can do when they start on the left.
Figure 8’s in the Air
A variation on the figure 8 is to draw “in the air.” I have students extend their right arms in front of their eyes, their right hand in a fist with the thumb sticking up and their eyes focused on their thumbs. They draw their horizontal 8 by, again, beginning their 8 to the left to activate their spatial perception. As before, we all recite our movement out loud. We then do the same with our left hand. Finally, we use both hands, all the while making sure our eyes stay focused on our thumbs. This helps our eyes cross the midline. Then, I gently guide the students to use only their eyes to cross their midlines. If they keep using their whole bodies, there is indication that midline movements for the eyes remain a challenge. For those students, I provide a board eraser and have them work with gross motor movements at the blackboard while they make their 8’s, again with one hand, the other hand and then both hands.
The 8’s can also be drawn on tactile surfaces, which stimulates sensory systems even more. While working with the 80 students in the gym, we did our 8’s in the air as paper and crayons were not a practical option. The power of crossing the midline through the use of the horizontal 8 was reinforced for me when I was asked by a colleague to teach this movement to her special education students to assist with writing. I shared some of my own writing and had them write about a topic of their choice. Most students had written several lines before running out of steam. I then introduced the 8, which was met with a great deal of enthusiasm and a sense of fun. I noticed that one little guy was having some difficulty crossing the midline and hadn’t written any thing. His teacher informed me privately that he rarely wrote. While the other students continued working on their writing, I assisted and guided him in creating his 8’s. When he was comfortable with the 8’s, I left him to practice on his own while I circulated around the room conferencing with the other students. By the end of the period, our little guy had filled an entire page of writing, much to the delight of his teacher.
I ended my 30 minutes with those 80 students with hook-ups, a movement that helped calm their nervous systems and integrate their emotional brains with their rational, thinking brains. This movement has two parts. In the first part, students crossed their left ankles over their right. Then they interlaced their fingers and drew their hands up toward their chests. The students closed their eyes, breathed deeply and relaxed for about a minute. I suggested that they think about a time that made them happy. t played relaxing music. (I particularly like music that is connected to nature.)
In the second part, the students uncrossed their legs and touched the fingertips of both hands together while they continued to breathe deeply for another minute. (Dennison, 1994 ). I do not insist that students keep their eyes closed because I realize that some students need open eyes to feel safe. Children who feel constantly stressed respond reflexively to the sensation of danger by moving their eyes peripherally so they can take in as much of the environment as possible. Traumatized children exhibit “wall eye,” with both eyes in a sustained peripheral focus. (Hannaford, 2005).
By giving students a consistent opportunity to use the calming effect of hook-ups, they gradually begin to relax their stressed eyes as well as all other parts of their bodies. Whenever I use hook-ups to guide groups of teenagers who have been under chronic stress, I can always count on one of them telling me that it makes them feel “fatigued,” which is the word they equate with relaxation. They are simply unaware of how stressed they are.
It is an amazing and gratifying experience to feel a room of students settle into a state of calmness as they do their hook-ups. The noise of the mind and emotions are quieted. The electrical frequencies radiated by the heart change. This can affect not only each student but the other students around them. (Childre, 1998). I have seen how extremely agitated students can be calmed down when classmates are doing hook-ups, even if the agitated students are not directly participating. This calmness provides a classroom atmosphere conducive to independent reading and writing while the teacher is engaging in reading or writing conferences with students or directing small group instruction.
When I guided those 80 students through these exercises, there was one important movement I couldn’t use— moving water through their bodies. Logistically, it was not feasible to wait for 80 students to drink water from one fountain outside the gym when I only had 30 minutes. However, I made sure my class was well hydrated throughout the day.
Our body systems are electrical. It is water that directs these electrical systems that makes for a sensing, learning, thinking and acting organism. (Hannaford, 1995). The first sign of dehydration is loss of concentration and focus, not thirst. When our students regularly drink water, they help their bodies carry more oxygen to their brains. As we know, fruit juice, soda and diet soda are high in sugars and salts. These bind water in the body and decrease alertness. It may be helpful to think of the different bodily systems as laundry. We wouldn’t think of washing our laundry with juices, sodas, coffees and teas. To keep our clothes clean, we would use water. The same applies to our bodies.
Awkward pencil grips, perching on chair edges, wrapping legs around a chair, laying the whole body on the desk and covering one eye when reading are familiar examples of compensating behaviors that students have created so they can try to learn. Their hearts want to learn but, developmentally, their bodies are not ready. As educators we must be careful not to “label” these compensations. We can, however, help our students let go of these compensations by providing the movements their bodies need to learn comfortably.
The movements can be used to prepare for a lesson, as a way to get through a learning challenge, as a way to transition from one lesson into another and as a way to anchor the lesson that was just learned.
In conclusion, except, perhaps, for air-traffic controllers, I can’t imagine a more stressful job than teaching. We need these movements as much for ourselves as for our students. That is why a sizable part of my movement work is with teachers. This is not about “prescribing” or “fixing.” Rather, it is about gracefully integrating movement into our own and our students’ lives. I use the power of movement whenever I notice I am under stress or have lost focus. I know I must redirect my stress and my focus before I can be effective in any classroom. I have to take care of myself first. Isn’t that what the airline stewards tell us as they go over the safety precautions for our flight? When the overhead compartments drop our oxygen masks, aren’t we asked to put ours on first before we place them on our children? Try the moves. Play with them. Experience how they helped you. You will then be motivated to share them effectively with your students.
Children, Doc. (1998). Freeze frame. Boulder Creek, CA: Planetary Publications.
Dennison, Paul E. (2006). Brain gym and me. Ventura, CA: Edu-Kinesthetic, Inc.
Dennison, Paul E. and Gail E. Dennison.(1994). Brain gym: Teacher’s edition. Revised. Ventura, CA: Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc.
Goddard, Sally. (1995). A teacher’s window into a child’s mind. Eugene, OR: Fern Ridge Press.
Hannaford, Carla. (2005). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Salt Lake City, UT: Great River Books.
Heilberger, Debra Wilson, and Margot C. Heiniger-White. (2000). S’cool moves for teaming. Shasta, CA: Integrated Learning Press.
About the author: Dr. Aili Pogust has worked as a public school teacher, a K-12 supervisor, and a college instructor. She has received over 350 hours of literacy training, is a certified certified Brain Gym® Consultant, as well as a certified coach with over 1200 hours of coaching experience. In addition to consulting, training, and coaching, Dr. Pogust maintains a private practice for children and adults where she effectively applies the methods developed by the International Educational Kinesiology Foundation which are used today throughout 80 countries. She is the author of Communicating with Clarity: A Pocket Guide for Humans. Visit Dr. Pogust’s Web site at www.pogustgroup.com. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to listen to Dr. Aili Pogust on Spectrum Podcasts.
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