The Effects of Movement on Development and Learning
“Learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body.”
Carla Hannaford, Ph.D.
Connections between the brain and body
In our society it is commonly believed that intelligence is measured by one’s analytical ability which is reflected by an IQ score. High IQ = smart; low IQ = not so much. We also act as if the body exists to carry the brain from place to place, with the actual learning and expression of learning happening solely in the brain. We believe in exercising the brain, but don't tend to view body movement as valuable to the learning process - witness the cutbacks in PE and recess in schools today.
The reality is that body movement
- is integral to our intellectual processes from the moment of conception
- enables us to take in information about the world through our senses
- then anchors this information in our neural networks
- is necessary as we build the skills we need to express our knowledge throughout our lives
Cerebral cortex: Center for both movement and higher level thinking
Interestingly, research reveals that the very same regions in the brain that are responsible for movement are the regions that are involved in higher level thinking. This suggests that there is a link between giving a child plenty of free play outside involving whole body movement and balancing activities, and their ability to perform higher level thinking such as problem-solving, creating and designing, anticipating outcomes, curbing impulses, and delaying gratification.
Here’s how it works
We absorb information about the world through our bodies. The body is like a huge magnet for learning, which comes to us through our eyes, hands, ears, taste buds and our noses, and which lays the necessary background knowledge for more complex learning.
This information is stored in various regions of the brain:
- Occipital Lobe is the visual area which receives visual information regarding shape, color, movement and also relates current input to previous input.
- Temporal Lobe is the auditory area having to do with sound, pitch, rhythm, the interpretation of speech, gravitational sense, balance, vibrational sense. The temporal lobe also is the area for the sense of smell.
- Parietal Lobe is the area for the senses such as touch, pain, cold, awareness of our bodies in space, shape, texture, orients where objects are in relationship to the body, and interprets sensations of taste (sweet, salty, bitter, etc.).
- Frontal Lobe is the area that controls muscles all over the body, learner motor movements, skilled movements, the scanning movements of the eyes, and the place where thoughts are translated into speech and where inner talk takes place. By inner talk I mean reasoning that leads one to delay gratification, to exhibit self-control, to plan based on what one has learned through cause and effect, etc.
For this amazing system to work, it is necessary for all areas of the brain to be in efficient communication with each other and this is why movement is critical to success in learning.
Movements that are instinctive to babies are critical to proper development and to learning
Babies are born with a full complement of neurons which are ready for stimulation. Stimulation results in creating neural networks of connection throughout the brain. The basic building blocks needed for proper development of the brain include: Good nutrition, oxygen supply, sensory stimulation, and freedom of movement.
A baby comes pre-programmed to ask for all the stimulation and care they need. They cry when they are hungry or need attention and move instinctively in ways that stimulate communication between regions in the brain. Because babies come pre-programmed to do what they need to develop properly, all that remains is for us to provide the environment for them to do what comes instinctively to them. These are examples of movements that are very effective for brain and body development:
- Lifting head
- Rolling over
- Hanging upside down
- Hand over hand activities
- Dribbling a ball
- Kicking a ball with alternating feet
“Cross lateral movements…activate both hemispheres in a balanced way. These activities work both sides of the body evenly and involve coordinated movements of both eyes, both ears, both hands and both feet as well as balanced core muscles. When [this occurs] the corpus callosum orchestrating these processes between the two hemispheres becomes more fully developed. Because both hemispheres and all four lobes are activated, cognitive function is heightened and ease of learning increases.”
Carla Hannaford, Smart Moves p. 81
Learning and brain development happen simultaneously as babies begin to interact with their world. Experiences that are rich in sensory stimuli cause brain cells to communicate, and this, in essence, is learning and thought. We all have observed how very young children want to pick up and taste everything they come across. This is what learning through the senses looks like. This is movement that results in development and learning.
Over time, learning that is done through the senses becomes more particular and more advanced and so the neural pathways that have to do with these experiences also become more elaborate and more complex.
For example, a toddler will experience a ball as being smooth to the touch, too big to put in their mouth, a bit unpredictable when dropped accidentally, but over time as the child grows older, their experience/knowledge of balls will elaborate. They will notice that some balls bounce better than others, that balls have an immense variety of physical characteristics, and the things you can do with balls are myriad. All of this accumulation of knowledge about balls will create a growing mass of neural pathways in the brain. Experience grows the brain and the harder you use it, the more it will grow.
- The whole body collects information through the senses. It is one big learning magnet!
- These sensory experiences build neural networks which will govern all our higher level brain development. In other words, rich sensory experiences are the necessary foundation for learning.
- There is a direct connection between free movement (rolling, scooting, crawling, walking, spinning, hopping, skipping, running, etc.) and the development in the frontal cortex, which is the location of higher order thinking. The stimulation from these types of movements is critical to brain processing. If you take it backward, a lack of this free movement will negatively impact activity in the frontal lobe.
- A rich learning experience will combine images that include shape, patterns, and color (from the occipital lobe), tones and words (from the temporal and frontal lobes), emotional experiences or connections (from the limbic system), and movements (from the basal ganglion). When we speak of a true multisensory learning experience, this is what it looks like and why it is significant for learning. The more regions of the brain that are stimulated in the process of learning, the more effective the activity will be. (See SnapWords® as an example of a learning piece that targets multiple regions in the brain simultaneously.)
- Whenever touch is included as part of learning more of the brain gets stimulated, which results in more complex neural networks. So hands-on learning is king!
- The rapid movement of the eyes as a child is engaging in free play outside is critical as it combines with other sensory experience. The information the eyes collect is in 3D which is important to developing spatial perception which is foundational for clear thought. For this reason, limiting 2D visual experiences (such as any screen) for young children is advisable. They need plenty of experience with physical movement that involves seeing their 3D world in order for vision to develop properly. Some reading issues have been linked to lack of proper eye development in children.
Those who have studied the connection between brain and body assert one thing: movement is essential to learning. Movement serves to awaken the brain to learn and then anchors what we learn into our neural networks. The great news is that because our brain is plastic and will continue to develop in reaction to our experiences, if your child is having trouble retrieving concepts that you believe they should know, please involve them in daily active movement that involves the whole body, balance, cross lateral movements (alternating one side of the body after the other), activities in which limbs cross the midline (reach right arm across the body to the left, etc.) What will happen is that this movement will get the different regions in the brain “talking” with each other so that information stored in various places can be consolidated and used.
Bottom line? Get your child moving and help them love learning!