Carla Hannaford, Ph.D.
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.
Reality is that body movement
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 his ability to perform higher level thinking such as problem-solving, creating and designing, anticipating outcomes, curbing impulses, and delaying gratification.
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:
For this amazing system to work, it is necessary for all areas of the brain to be inefficient communication with each other and this is why movement is critical to success in learning.
Babies are born with a full complement of neurons which are ready for stimulation. Stimulation results in the creation of 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 he or she needs. He cries when he’s hungry or needs attention and moves 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:
“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 his mouth, a bit unpredictable when dropped accidentally, but over time as the child grows older, his experience / knowledge of balls will elaborate. He 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.
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 he or she should know, please involve him or her 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 him love learning!