Stop by The Wolf School on any given morning and you will see students running and throwing balls in the gym, swinging on the suspended equipment in our Sensory Arena, moving down the hallway on scooters, or standing next to their desks stretching their arms into the air. Is this gym class? Fun and games? A way to keep kids busy?
Actually, it is none of the above. This activity is purposeful and critical to our students’ educational progress. We call it Move to Learn. It ranges from a formal Move To Learn morning class developed and run by the Physical Education teacher and an Occupational Therapist, to exercises called Brain Gym® that are facilitated in the classroom, to academic lessons that incorporate movement.
With mounting evidence supporting the positive impact of exercise on brain functioning, this approach seems like (pardon the pun) a no-brainer. But most schools don’t have the luxury of a Sensory Arena or the ability to structure their day around movement. And parents aren’t always clear on what and how much activity will benefit their children day-to-day.
Here are five types of movement that are particularly helpful for Complex Learners, but also have a positive impact on all children. Many of these are easy to implement at home or school. Not only will this type of activity improve focus and attention, but in addition has benefits for general health and well-being.
1) Heavy work/resistance. Activities and exercise that create resistance access neurochemistry in ways that are calming, organizing, and focusing. Pulling, pushing and lifting are all considered heavy work. Specific examples include walking uphill or up a flight of stairs, raking leaves, taking out heavy bags of trash, weight lifting, even carrying stacks of books or groceries. If children are at their desks at school or home, they can do chair sit-ups by holding the sides of the chair and lifting themselves up and down several times. This provides a short break from work that actually helps sustain continued attention.
2) Crossing midline. Movement that crosses the midline of your body actually helps to get the left and right side of your brain to work in sync. It attunes each side of the brain to the other and helps the stronger side support the weaker side. Drawing or walking in a figure eight, interlocking hands and swinging arms side-to-side like an elephant trunk, and windmills (hand to opposite foot or knee) are examples of crossing midline activities. The ability to cross midline is an important skill for handwriting, reading, and other learning that most of us take for granted but that may need to be fostered in younger children and Complex Learners.
3) Vestibular. Our vestibular system helps our body know where it is in space and supports balance, which in turn helps us to integrate other incoming sensory information. Head changing activities like spinning, rocking, and swinging are alerting for children and stimulate vestibular processing. Most children don’t change their head position through the school day, so incorporating opportunities for this kind of activity can be very helpful (e.g., tumbling, yoga positions like downward dog, tucking in like a ball and rolling side to side, touching toes before transitioning to the next activity). At home, the Wii Fit Dace Dance Revolution is a fun way to increase your child’s activity level and incorporate vestibular movement.
4) Endurance/Fitness. We all know the benefits of cardio and strength-training activities, but for Complex Learners, engaging in gym class and organized sports can be difficult socially. It is important to find ways your child can get endurance and fitness exercise as the cardio benefits they will receive may not be gained in other ways. Exercise has been shown to improve memory and focus as well, so walking, biking, swimming, soccer, basketball, etc., will improve overall health and impact learning.
5) Nature. There is new evidence that demonstrates physical activity in nature is actually more powerful than other kinds of movement. In fact, many children suffer from a “nature deficit” lacking opportunities to be outside in green space. Recent studies suggest that free play in green space may actually have greater health benefits than organized sports. We could all benefit from more time outside so find a beach, a nature trail, or a big open field and walk, run or play!
For Complex Learners, input from an Occupational Therapist is critical to address targeted needs, but all of us can benefit from movement to support focus, attention, and memory. The more we move, the more we learn, so don’t just take a break. As we say at The Wolf School, take a movement break!
Anna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving complex learners. http://www.thewolfschool.org