1. Physical coordination precedes and lays the foundation for cognitive coordination.
In other words, if you want to develop the mind, you must develop the body. That means multiple sessions daily of movement, play, and exercise. Per Marcia’s testimonial as a parent and a pediatric OT, it was doing the yoga story DVDs twice daily that enabled her son to build the motor skills, focus, and self-control needed for kindergarten. My point here is that regardless of your child’s challenges or strengths, if s/he is difficult, stressed, crabby, withdrawn, anxious, etc., s/he probably needs more physical play. Fun movement is the biologically built-in developer of body-mind-feelings awareness and management. At school, make sure students enjoy 90 to 120 minutes of supervised, instructional gross motor activity as well as outside time. At home, my recommendation is 20-30 minutes minimum every day – just you and your child, one-on-one, whatever s/he wants to do.
2. Mindfulness is a sensory-motor skill.
Impulse control, emotional intelligence, self-regulation and executive function develop as children become aware of and understand what happens inside their own bodies. It is through interactive activity such as exercise instruction and pretend play that they build the inner sensory-emotional awareness necessary for self-control. Per the work of Catherine Rosasco Mitchell and others in embodied, sensory-motor education, we know that children can only access and understand their own perception, character, and relationships by using the feelings/sensations of the body. Play and intentional movement help them grow mindful as well as socially – emotionally competent.
3. To get the benefits, you have to do the practice.
Exercise is a natural mind-body regulator and integrator. Active play causes kids to be less impulsive and more primed to learn by literally building brain cells, turning on the attention system, and firing up the executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention. To realize these effects means you’ve got to actually prioritize and spend more time playing and exercising and less time sitting and on screens. Why? Because intentional movement and playful instructional exercise promote and improve:
Marcia Washington, OTR/L, has been practicing pediatric occupational therapy for 20 years. In 2009, in her hometown of Pontotoc, MS, she launched KidSense, a clinic that specializes in pediatric therapy, includes a sensory motor gym, and serves clients from over a 70 mile radius.
Marcia and her husband, David, have 2 biological daughters, Mattie – 14 and Ella – 10. In 2014, they adopted a 2 year old boy from Poland. Marcia helped Gehrig improve his language and overall motor skills using Rhythmic Movement, Integrated Listening, NeuroNet Learning program and the Alert Program “How Does Your Engine Run.” Yet core strength, posture control and unintegrated reflexes persisted to the point of causing inattentive/impulsive behavior in preschool.
That’s when she started to use Move With Me Yoga Adventure DVDs and flash cards daily. She was so impressed with the results that she wrote us a thank you note. We were so touched that we invited her to speak about her experience so we could share it with all of you.
The freeEmbodied Mindfulness Video by Wellness Through Movement is an 8-minute animated story (see below for video), designed to be presented to children in 4 two-minute sections. It shows how two children who get in trouble for not listening come to understand what happened for them and how they can use a centering breath technique called, Home, to develop their ability to be mindful and to better direct their attention so that they can listen.
The program is the culmination of 30 years of work and research with children by co-creator, Catherine Rosasco Mitchell. She sent it to me recently after testing it for thirteen years in elementary schools. I was impressed with the simplicity, clarity, and accessibility of the video and with her accompanying User and Teacher Guides. I enthusiastically recommend the program to anyone working with children. What I love about this resource is that it’s free – thank you Catherine! – and that it directly addresses the fact that children are 90% more in their bodies than in their minds.
Children are full of energy, emotion, and sensation inside so they feel more than they think. To develop self-regulation, parents and teachers need to understand that children have to become aware of and understand what happens inside them when they don’t or can’t, hear, think, or pay attention in order to manage it better. They also need both encouragement to self-reflect and time to practice sensory – somatic tools or techniques to reset. When this process is offered and even modeled by their teachers and parents, kids can learn to work with themselves brilliantly. As Catherine explains eloquently: It is only by using the feelings of the body that you can truly help children access and understand their own perception, character, and relationship to others.
In addition to her scientifically designed sequences of movements and proprioception to increase self- awareness and support the development of both internal and external attention, I also admire Catherine’s advocacy for embodied education. She not only understands the vital role of embodiment in development, she also creates lesson plans that integrate sensory self-awareness and shows educators as well as professionals in the psychology, development, and neuroscience how to teach it. Check out her Teaching Embodiment is Crucial Poster presented at conferences on health and movement including the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) and American Association of Health, Physical Education and Dance (AAPERD).
To access and utilize this awesome free resource click here.
In the video below, Rafe Kelley, founder of Evolve Move Play, presents a valuable distinction between that which fills our attention and feeds our monkey minds and that which nourishes our humanity and fuels our personal development. It’s a valuable lens through which to assess our own lives.
How is the stimulation of a plugged in life affecting me?
How do I spend my time? Am I filling my life with fluff or with meaning?
Are my choices aligned with my values? Do I feel full and enriched or empty and depleted?
Are there parts of me that are starving… for connection, expression, integration?
Am I so busy that I’ve disconnected from myself, my health, my relationships, my dreams? Are my passions being replaced with addictions?
What am I modeling for my children? What are my rules around technology for them?
As an educator and a parent, I believe distinguishing stimulation from nourishment is an essential lens through which to assess the lives and development of our children. Given the technologizing of childhood, it’s imperative that we protect the growing brain from the proven negative consequences of over-stimulation and inappropriate stimulation. We need to understand what is truly nourishing for the whole child or we risk a generation of kids who are dysregulated, out of synch with their own natures, and regulating through consumption.
In his TED Talk, Media and Children, pediatrician and researcher Dr. Dimitri Christakis, explains how over-stimulation from fast-paced and/or violent TV watching or other screen time actually damages the developing brain’s ability to pay attention and learn. He advocates for the nourishment of cognitive stimulation in early childhood instead. Cognitive stimulation comes from whole child engaging activities such as block play, reading, singing, dancing, cooking, etc. with parents and care-givers. Children who spend plenty of time getting nourished in these ways have very few attention or self-regulation issues later in life. Conversely, children, especially those under the age of 3, who watch lots of non-educational, inappropriately paced TV, have much higher rates of attention, regulation, and learning issues.
The official definition of executive function is: a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. Think of executive function as the “conductor” of all cognitive skills, enabling us to manage our lives, responsibilities, and projects. These skills include:
Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time.
Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation.
Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings.
Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies.
Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task.
Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands.
Organization of Materials – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.
Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected.
Looking at this list, it’s obvious that self-regulation is a critical competency of executive function in two major ways: social-emotional (appropriate behavior in a social context) and cognitive (focus, academic learning, problem-solving). When children are self-regulating, they can both stop or start doing something, even if they don’t want to. They can delay gratification; they can think ahead; they can control impulses and consider options. It is crucial that children learn basic self-regulation in early childhood because research indicates that “children who cannot control their emotions at age four are unlikely to be able to follow the teachers’ directions at age six, and will not become reflective learners in middle and high school.” (http://toolsofthemind.org/learn/resources/research-by-tools/)
Breathing Techniques for Executive Function
Breathing techniques offer easy-to-practice activities for building basic self-regulation in the body of youngsters and in your classroom. With something specific to do to support themselves when confronted with transitions, sharing, waiting, and re-directing impulses, children are better able to navigate those challenges. As they experience how specific ways of breathing enable them to tolerate feelings and manage impulses, they start to embody greater control. This process strengthens executive function, which builds self-esteem and self-trust.
Help kids learn how to count on their inner wisdom and intelligence. Make time for self-reflection and self-care throughout the day. Then introduce and practice breathing exercises regularly as a way to de-stress, recharge, and reset to to an optimal mind-body state. Below are 2 options that offer simple, effective tools for healthy self-regulation.
is a fun technique that is sure to make kids laugh and not take things too seriously. Because it requires make a silly blooping sound on the exhale, like a fish, it disperses tension, releases frustration, and busts the stress of over-efforting. Humor and playfulness are keys to accessing executive function and creative thinking. Physiologically, when you inhale deeply, you pull in lots of oxygen needed by our brain and body to stay relaxed and alert. When you exhale completely, you make room for more which helps us release toxins and recharge.
Take a deep breath through your nose,
Fill up your cheeks with that breath and …
Push it all out through your mouth while saying…
Bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, blooooooop.
And again, deep breath in your nose…
Fill up your cheeks with it and …
Exhale it out your mouth …
Bloop, bloop, bloop, bloop, blooooooop.
activates the midline of the body, connects both hemispheres of the brain, and relieves tension in the eye muscles. As they inhale, direct children to place one hand on their belly button and the other on their sternum, like giving themselves a hug. Then, as they exhale, have them move just their eyes (head remains still) slowly from right to left and back again 2-4 times. This movement facilitates improved eye teaming skills and cross-motor coordination.
Overall, Ocean Breath slows, calms, and centers both mind and body, which will enable children to access executive function. Directions
Place one hand on your belly button,
place the other in the middle of your chest.
Press your thumb and forefinger into the
soft tissue points beneath your collar bones
on either side of your sternum. Inhale fully
through your nose and then, as you exhale
slowly, move just your eyes from right to left.
The Damage Being Done by the Focus on Early Academic Instruction
For all of you still having to “fight” for more active play/yoga/mindfulness/nature time with early learners, research funded by the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years Foundation confirms that “young children learn best through meaningful, play experiences.” Unfortunately, though most early childhood educators would recommend whole child engaging activities, a la programs like the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum, they are being forced to abide by new requirements that focus on academics. Current statistics show that long-term damage is being done by this shift to developmentally inappropriate practices for young kids. The less play-based experiences preschool – kindergarten children engage in, the more sensory issues they have.
Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical developmental period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions. We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age.
Peter Gray, PhD, research professor at Boston College, and author of Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) offers a synopsis of the research of the negative effects of academic preschools and kindergartens in his article in Psychology Today: Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm. The biological fact is that children are born with instinctive drives to educate themselves through play and exploration. When we interfere or try to impose rather than support those innate impulses, we stop the natural learning process and damage the child’s confidence, ease, joy, and creative, critical thinking. What makes this so frustrating and infuriating is that this research has been around for decades!
In a well-controlled experiment, begun by David Weikart and his colleagues in 1967, sixty eight high-poverty children living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, were assigned to one of three types of nursery schools: Traditional (play-based), High/Scope (which was like the traditional but involved more adult guidance), and Direct Instruction (where the focus was on teaching reading, writing, and math, using worksheets and tests). The initial results of this experiment were similar to those of other such studies. Those in the direct-instruction group showed early academic gains, which soon vanished. This study, however, also included follow-up research when the participants were 15 years old and again when they were 23 years old. At these ages there were no significant differences among the groups in academic achievement, but large, significant differences in social and emotional characteristics.
Thankfully, in Germany, they paid attention to the research and adapted their early learning programs accordingly:
A study with similar outcomes was done in Germany where play-based kindergartens were being transformed into early learning centers in the 1970s. The study compared 50 kindergarten classes using each of the two approaches. The children were followed through grade four, and those from the play-based programs excelled over the others on all 17 measures, including being more advanced in reading and mathematics and being better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. As a result the German kindergartens again became play based.
With ample proof that an academic focus in early learning is detrimental, it’s mind boggling how direct instruction for math and reading continues to proliferate?! Defending the Early Years, and Alliance for Childhood ask the same question in their article: Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain, Much to Lose. In it, they reveal that, on the committees that wrote and reviewed the new Common Core School Standards (CCSS), there is not one K-3rd grade teacher or an early childhood professional. Nor is there any actual evidence that the standards are based on research.
I can’t explain this total disregard for valid research but I do know it means we need to continue to push back – harder. If you, as parent, teacher, therapist, need support for fighting this battle, reach out to us and feel free to use any resources from our website!
To summarize, here’s what the EXPERTS say and encourage you to be doing:
Children learn best when they are engaged in activities geared to their developmental levels, prior experiences, and current needs. As they construct their ideas through play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, children’s knowledge builds in a gradual progression that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science and the arts. In active learning, their capacities for language development, social and emotional awareness, problem solving, self-regulation, creativity, and original thinking develop, transforming them into effective learners.
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“Your training always took us back to self-regulation and coherence in ourselves, which enabled me to feel both personally inspired and professionally confident to share the Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum program with children!"-Erin McFarland, Teacher, CA