May 24, 2017

Moving Body, Healthy Brain, Happy Child

Laurie Flaherty, a January 2016 LGK Early Childhood Superhero, is founder and co-director of AB2: Active Body, Active Brain, Creative Movement-Based Early Childhood Curriculum. She is also founder and former executive/artistic director of Green Mountain Performing Arts. She is an instructor for Vermont Northern Lights Career Development Center and a certified teacher in Brain-Compatible Dance Education. Laurie received her Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts and has always had a passion for education and the arts. She teaches classes and workshops across the state of Vermont and she is always looking for new ways to make learning active, fun and creative.

The Body Mind Connection 

The brain is a bustling hub of energy during a child’s earliest years as one million new brain connections are formed every second. To encourage healthy brain development, it is critical that we give our children positive stimulation during the early years. One way to do this is through creative movement. 

Anne Green Gilbert has done extensive research as a dance educator with a focus on how movement affects brain development. Her books—Brain-Compatible Dance Education and Teaching the Three R’s Through Movement—have become the basis for all of my teaching and curriculum. I begin my classes with the BrainDance, which Gilbert developed as a body–brain warm-up exercise comprised of eight developmental movement patterns that healthy human beings naturally progress through in the first year of life.

Babies first do these fundamental movements on their tummies, sides and backs and continue these movement patterns as they learn to crawl and walk. Movement forms millions of connections within the developing nervous system. Repeated movement strengthens pathways that run between the body and the brain, laying the foundation for sensory-motor development and lifelong learning. When patterns are disrupted, due to such things as birth trauma, illness, head injuries or not enough floor time as a baby, it can create a gap in a person’s brain development, which can lead to a number of difficulties such as behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, and speech and balance problems. Cycling through the patterns daily or weekly can help reorganize the central nervous system, which may help us to fill in any missing gaps for children.

Benefits of Movement in Learning

There are many benefits to incorporating movement into learning:

  • Increases mental alertness, memory (because all the senses are stimulated), social skills, self-expression and self-confidence.
  • Increases blood and oxygen flow to the respiratory system and the brain, leading to improved focus and attention.
  • Increases motor development and helps children to gain strength, flexibility and balance.
  • Makes learning more fun. Students are excited to learn, engaged, involved, willing to take more risks and more cooperative. 
  • Encourages children to be healthier and more physically fit. Movement helps release endorphins, which lower any stress children might be feeling. This helps to support learning, cognitive, social and emotional growth.
  • Helps to build confidence in children who feel shy about participating in a group setting. 
  • Allows children to work at their own rate, encouraging the success of each child. There is no right or wrong way to interpret, explore or create movement. This, in turn, helps to build a positive self-concept.
  • Provides an opportunity for use of critical and creative thinking at the same time. Children need to think, move and feel all at once. This stimulates so many different areas of the brain all at the same time.

Movement for Broad Assessment

Using movement during learning is also an excellent way to assess deficiencies or learning challenges. By using movement during learning, parents, caregivers and adults working with young children can become aware of sensory and motor deficits in children, which, if not detected may manifest in social, emotional, physical or cognitive delays or difficulties. With early identification and intervention, these deficits can be lessened or prevented altogether.

Teaching with Movement

Almost anything can be taught with movement, including math, literacy, social studies, science and foreign languages. For example, even with infants, who are sponges for math skills, you can start by creating a lesson on rhythm. After establishing a steady beat with a drum or hand-clapping, count the beat out loud and then change the beat to make a pattern. To teach early literacy skills to toddlers, start by writing a word such as “C-A-T” on a whiteboard. After identifying each letter and sounding it out, everyone can act like cats by creeping around the room, rolling with an imaginary ball of string, pouncing and stretching. Each child can be given a long piece of string to spell out the letters “C-A-T” followed by everyone bending their bodies to spell out the letters. The exercise can end with a reading of a story about cats, which can then be acted out. The possibilities from one short lesson are endless!

Movement during learning not only makes learning fun, it helps fuel the brain and body with energy. This sparkling energy helps to ignite and cement early learning. An enriching environment filled with creative movement will promote the development of a healthy body and will help to encourage healthy, happy and focused learners.

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