My friend Jane* recently discovered the ultimate secret for helping a child have better attention and academic success. This “secret” is really just a highly overlooked, evidence-based strategy that’s free, accessible to everyone, completely safe and natural. Oh, and it improves academic outcomes, too. Jackpot.
Jane figured it out when her six-year-old daughter, Lucy, was mid-morning in her home-school lesson and refused to sit at the desk for math. Instead, Lucy climbed into her yoga hammock, a stretchy fabric swing the family had installed in their school room. She began to play and hang upside down in the hammock so Jane offered Lucy a compromise—to have a math lesson in the hammock.
I was lucky enough to watch the account firsthand because Jane, fascinated by what transpired, took a video recording and shared it with me. And the video demonstrates so beautifully what science now proves:
Kids need to move to think.**
In the one minute clip, Lucy drops her resistance to the math lesson as she moves in the hammock. She listens to a math problem, tilts her head upside down, problem solves out loud as she climbs up the fabric, then answers accurately as she flips down again.
Her attention and participation in the lesson never wanes. She moves to think right before our eyes.
Lucy wanting to hang upside down wasn't the problem with getting her to complete her schoolwork and stay on task. It was the ANSWER!
Movement and physical activity are imperative to brain development, academic performance and self-regulation. As an occupational therapist well aware of the effects of the modern, sedentary lifestyle on child development and brain function, I can assure you that today's kids need more physical movement more often for better brain function, but I’m certainly not the first to suggest it.
Bestselling authors, Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, advocate for movement as a way to support emotional states with their strategy, “Move it or lose it.” They write in their book, The Whole-Brain Child, “Research has shown that bodily movement directly affects brain chemistry…Research shows that when we change our physical state—through movement or relaxation, for example—we can change our emotional state.”
Heaps of additional research demonstrates how movement supports overall cognition, cardiovascular function, metabolism and biochemical regulation in the body, but I like thank the past five-ish decades of western yoga teachings for the suggestion that we can move our bodies to improve mental focus and intellectual abilities.
In September 2014, a research article published in "Pediatrics" scientifically confirmed such wisdom as applied to a child’s developing brain. This study uniquely demonstrated that children who move their bodies extensively and frequently are better at paying attention and have better abilities for impulse control, decision making, and problem solving.
Perhaps the most significant finding this study produced is one that might encourage parents to increase movement opportunities at home as well as influence legislators and schools to increase physical activity in the learning environment. This golden nugget of a finding demonstrates that increasing physical activity can actually improve a child’s academic performance by increasing attention and executive skills.
The more the kids in this study participated in physical activity each day and over time, the greater their scores for improving attention, problem solving and decision making. A new strategy for improving our kids’ academic outcomes may be counter-intuitive, but it’s one kids will like, for sure: to decrease sitting at desks and increase movement & physical activity!
This research brings up a common misconception: movement while learning is either disruptive or a problem; but it's not the problem, it’s the answer! We must move to think.
So what are we to do from here? Well, one thing’s for sure: more information, however solid and evidence based, doesn't always motivate change. Awareness is the first step, but we need an easily achievable plan of action to make lasting changes.
Without further ado, here are five simple, low to no-cost action steps that can boost brain function and academic performance in the educational environment:
1. Allow more moving, position changes and standing in the classroom.
We need to move for better thinking, and that movement can’t just be with our eyes, our mouths and our fingers, as much of today’s education encourages. Unfortunately, our brains are not designed to sustain the small-motor lifestyle we have built for our kids.
In most of today’s schools, our kids have ample opportunity to use only three of the four categories of motor control, all of which are regulated by the central nervous system:
1. Oral motor (mouth movement through communication).
2. Fine motor (finger movement through writing, keyboarding or utilizing touch technology).
3. Visual motor (eye movement utilized in reading/writing/math, visual focus shifts from the board to desk, and visual spatial activities with technology).
These opportunities are beneficial, but they’ll come with difficulty and challenges if they don’t include their fourth 4th critical counterpart:
4. Gross motor movement
Gross motor involves movement of the bigger parts of the body such as the head, trunk and extremities. Think running, jumping and swinging. This type of movement stimulates our vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (posture and muscular) systems.
Our brains function optimally when we move as we are designed, which is with intermittent and frequent gross motor movement, much like the hunter gatherer lifestyle of generations passed.
Think of each of these four motor categories as if they were traffic lanes on a four-lane highway in a city. If you restrict or close off one of the lanes during rush hour, the other three 3 lanes are instantly affected and aren't as efficient. Asking a child to sit still while they do school work is like blocking off a traffic lane of information to the brain during the 5 pm traffic surge. It still allows the flow of information, but not as efficiently or effectively.
Many people think of gross motor movement as being huge movements that require facilities outside the classroom like a playground or a gymnasium, but it doesn’t have to. Inside the classroom, gross motor movement is easy to accomplish! Here’s what it could look like in simple form:
● Simply stand up, bend over, and touch your toes 1-2 times. Sit back down to resume class work. Repeat every 15-20 minutes.
● Take “brain breaks” like Austin ISD teacher, Katie Meyers, does with her 2nd grade students. In Meyer’s classroom, each child has their own designated picture of a brain along the aisles and edges of the room. Throughout the day, when Katie notices the kids need a boost in attention , she will call a “brain break” where kids move to their designated spot in the room and draw 2-3 physical activities from a can of popsicle sticks with various movements written on them (such as five jumping jacks). They complete the task in minutes and return to work. Ms. Meyers reports the kids have better participation and focus with brain breaks, and she doesn’t dare go a day without utilizing them both for her sanity and theirs.
● Allow kids to stand at a chest-height writing desk with a footrest underneath and the opportunity to rest on a stool when needed.
● Give kids an option to sit on an exercise ball while doing work at a seated desk instead of sitting in a traditional school chair.
● Offer kids a floor space to lie on their bellies propped on elbows to complete some work.
● Assign a classroom job to kids as often as possible. Not only does such a task help the entire classroom community and teaches responsibility, it also supports the child completing the job because a task such as passing out papers to classmates, wiping off tables, or even just cleaning a dry erase board, requires big arm or leg movements and shifting the position of the head in space—all gross motor movements, which assist with attention and learning.
Allow that “fourth traffic lane” of bigger physical activity to be open during education, and you’ll see some really smooth flow of attention, self-regulation and executive functioning in the learning environment.
2. Teach kids to move, not to sit.
Sitting is detrimental to our health and brain function. Modern health experts refer to sitting as “the new smoking” due to the heaps of research that demonstrates how sitting negatively affects our overall health and cognitive abilities. If sitting really is the new smoking, then what does that say about the way we traditionally teach our kids to sit for the majority of the school day?
Even adults can’t and shouldn't sit still. Not completely, at least.
For instance, if you are reading this right now, you are likely sitting or standing relatively still, but you will take a (usually subconscious) movement break here and there while you read and process the information. You might cross your legs and bounce your foot; you might roll your neck, or fidget with your pen or jewelry. You might twirl your hair around your finger. Perhaps you change positions, shift your weight to the other side or lean back in your chair or against a wall.
Check yourself right now. You move in subtler ways than your child, but you move to think all the same, and according to research, the more often you allow yourself to do so, the better your cardiovascular health, metabolism and cognition.
Humans are neurologically and physically designed to move as we learn and think, and if we can’t, the brain prioritizes holding our bodies still over learning and processing the new information. We must place more emphasis on teaching kids how tomindfully break up their time spent sitting and insert movement breaks and position changes.
Let’s teach our kids what they really need to know about how to obtain optimal brain function, which is not how to sit still, but how to move often and in various ways.
3. Allow kids to walk or move while they talk and listen.
Do you know someone who paces or walks when talking on the phone? There’s a neurological reason for that and it largely has to do with the convergence of two nerves in the brain.
The nerve that transmits movement information and the nerve that transmits sound information in the brain join together to form the eighth cranial nerve, which is called the vestibulocochlear nerve. When either of these two nerves is stimulated, so is the other. No wonder people move when they are listening—think of people at a music concert. We are neurologically wired to be doing both at the same time.
In the classroom, as kids listen to instruction, you will see them hankering to move. Naturally. That’s not just kids being kids, that’s the way brains are built.
This is partly why the brilliant minds at Google and Apple find such improved creative and problem solving results from holding a meeting at the same time they are taking a walk. Walking meetings, they call them, and it’s a brilliant strategy.
Allow kids to walk or move their bodies as they talk and listen to foster optimal brain function and better academic outcomes.
4. Honor the right to physical activity in the same way we honor the right to eat lunch.
The brain needs movement the same way it needs food, and science confirms that frequent movement or physical activity affects metabolism, blood sugar levels, brain function and cardiovascular function.
We’d never tell a child, “Hey, you didn’t have acceptable behavior/complete your work, etc so as a consequence, we are going to take away half of your sandwich and your apple that you brought for lunch.”
That would never fly with the majority of American parents and teachers, but that’s essentially the message we give to kids when we deny them the chance to feed their hunger for physical activity and withhold all or a portion of recess.
Worse still, is not allowing recess at all and having the majority of learning take place in a small motor way, which denies kids of their developmental needs for movement.
We now have evidence that adding more physical movement to a child's day increases attention and brain function needed for academic testing and learning. Kids need recess outside of the classroom and movement breaks in the classroom like they need lunch and snacks, and it’s high time we honored movement in the classroom and physical activity beyond the classroom for what it is: a right, not a luxury or a privilege.
5. We don’t have to sacrifice movement for learning. We can do both at the same time!
The problem with getting our kids to move doesn’t lie with the idea of it. Most of us want our kids to be physically active. The issue lies in the belief that adding more physical activity to the educational day is a conflict with “more productive” tasks such as teaching mandatory curriculum in math, sciences and language.
I encourage everyone to see movement and physical activity for what it really is: a tool that integrates into the educational environment and a boon to the learning process, not a distraction from it.
I propose we give teachers and kids permission to turn any static learning into a more dynamic or kinesthetic task.
Katie Meyers incorporates movement into her lesson plans and reveals that a moving approach to teaching can be simple and motivating. She shared with me a kinesthetic strategy she utilizes in her 2nd grade classroom for teaching spelling words.
She tells me, “If the kids are spelling the word “big,” I would have the class stand up and clap at a certain place to reflect the shape of each letter. We would clap our hands high in the air for the letter “b” because it’s a tall letter that reaches high above the baseline. Then we’d clap our hands at chest height for the lower case “i” because it’s a letter that sits centered near the baseline. We clap our hands down on the ground for the letter “g” because the shape of the letter swoops below the baseline.” Ms. Meyers tells me she uses kinesthetic learning as much as possible because “their enthusiasm for learning increases when they can get up and move.”
We don’t have to sacrifice learning for movement, but like Ms. Meyers in her classroom and Lucy, the girl in the video clip, we can find a way to do both at the same time.
If we are serious about helping kids achieve academic success, we need to incorporate more everyday movement into the home and learning environment.
Fortunately, the key to helping today’s kids develop optimal brain function, better attention and greater academic success is simple and accessible. The question is not “should we,” but “how can we add more movement and physical activity to a child’s every day?”
*names have been changed
** inspired by Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk story about world renowned dancer and choreographer, Gillian Lynne and how as a child she needed to "move to think,"
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Lindsey Lieneck, MS, OTR, RYT, is owner of Yogapeutics in Austin, TX where she has developed the Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga & Mindfulness curriculum for kids. She teaches classes, consults with parents & schools and educates other professionals on the Yogapeutics curriculum. Read more about Lindsey HERE.
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