- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2007

A little tidbit I just found supports the experience that many of us have had in teaching our children: Movement is the sole factor that unites all parts of the brain, including the right and left hemispheres. In other words, children must be allowed to move in order to learn. (“The Brain and Learning: Directions in Early Childhood Education,” by Marlin Languis.)

All early elementary students, and kinesthetic learners in general, literally cannot learn while sitting still. Beginning around age 5 and continuing to puberty, movement allows information to be shared between the right and left hemispheres, as well as between the different levels of the brain. Gross motor movements, such as running, moving arms and legs, and jumping stimulate more than good blood circulation, and fine motor skills similarly allow the eyes, hands and other senses to develop cooperation and coordination with the brain.

Even babies can benefit from a wide range of motion and muscular activity that helps develop neural pathways. For instance, by holding babies in different positions, encouraging them to take some body weight on their legs or other muscle groups and by physically helping them extend and flex their limbs or other muscular systems, the brain receives different kinds of messages, which helps “program” the brain and body.

Parents can be looking for various ways to stimulate different muscle groups. Teaching a child to stir a bowl of food or to mop up a spill helps him or her develop different types of control. In Japan, preschoolers are taught large movements, like drumming or jumping rope, and as the child grows older, he or she progresses to finer and finer movement control. Even movements involved in swimming or bouncing a ball allow the brain to absorb new information.

In the home-school setting, we are fortunate to be able to maximize the opportunities to use movement to support learning. You can teach how the world rotates around the sun by having the child spin as he circles a lamp, and have him shout “day” when he sees the light and “night” when he’s spinning away from it. You can teach map skills by creating a diagram of your house or yard together, and then creating a “treasure hunt” using landmarks on the map, with them traveling around to find the clues.

My children enjoyed creating dances on the sturdy living room coffee table, and to this day they entertain friends with their spontaneous “interpretive dancing” to various types of music. Martial arts practice is a great way of developing coordination and control, but also teaching language and culture. Sports develop a number of different mental skills, including strategy, numerical calculation, spatial estimation and awareness of weather patterns. Yoga and other gentle movement practices can help develop focus, posture, breathing and good relaxation techniques.

A 2005 study in Sweden showed that depression can be lessened and emotional health improved by involvement in dance or active movement, and that boys diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder were able to become calmer and better learners through dance, as well as improving social skills and reducing former aggressive behavior.

As the weather becomes more balmy, we can take lessons outside and integrate more activity into learning. Hoeing and planting a garden can become the biology lab, and riding bikes can lead to a number of learning experiences.

Activity and alertness are related, and the body and mind both benefit from the connection. Enjoy the journey.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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