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Mindfulness training helps children sleep better

Children around the world are suffering from stress. The COVID pandemic has certainly introduced more stressors, including fear of the disease, food insecurity as a result of loss of income, disrupted schooling, home and community violence and crowded homes.  These conditions are a recipe for poor sleep.

A study from the Stanford University School of Medicine found that at-risk children (more than 1 000 Grade 3 and Grade 5 learners) gained more than an hour of sleep per night after participating in a mindfulness curriculum at their primary schools. This research is available online in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

The curriculum did not instruct children on how to get more sleep but instead taught them how to relax and manage stress by focusing their attention on the present.  The result was that the children slept, on average, 74 minutes more per night than they had before they received the Mindfulness training. They also showed a gain of almost half an hour of REM (Rapid Eye Movements) sleep. This sleep includes dreaming and helps consolidate memories and is a very important phase of sleep for the development of neurons and for developing cognitive and emotional functioning.

In order to fall asleep we need to relax, which is difficult to do when under stress and also lacking security and safety.  Mindfulness exercises feature slow, deep breathing, and yoga-based movement.  It does not include lessons of sleep-improvement techniques, such as maintaining consistent bedtimes and so on.

The researchers used the Pure Power Curriculum developed by a nonprofit organization called PureEdge.   Their website offers a variety of easily accessible, free educational resources and curricula which are available to any non-profit entity that strives to improve the lives of educators and learners.

Knowing the many benefits of Mindfulness, schools and families are encouraged to learn more about the techniques involved in order to help ourselves and our children to acquire a valuable lifeskill.




Can junk food be damaging children’s skeletal development?


Credit: Maliz Ong/public domain

A team of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has found a definite link between ultra-processed foods and reduced bone quality, unveiling the damage of these foods particularly for younger children in their developing years. The study was published in the journal Bone Research and serves as the first comprehensive study of the effect of widely-available food products on skeleton development.

Ultra-processed foods—aka junk food—are food items products that undergo several stages of processing and contain non-dietary ingredients (meaning additives that have no nutritional qualities). They’re popular with consumers because they are easily accessible, relatively inexpensive and ready to eat straight out of the package. They also often have a long shelf life as well. The increasing prevalence of these products around the world has directly contributed to increased obesity and other mental and metabolic impacts on consumers of all ages.

Children tend to like junk food.  It’s been estimated that in some communities, as much as 70% percent of their caloric consumption comes from ultra-processed foods. While numerous studies have reflected on the overall negative impact of junk food, few have focused on its direct developmental effects on children, particularly young children.

The Hebrew University study provides the first comprehensive analysis for how these foods impact skeletal development. The study surveyed lab rodents  and found that those that were subjected to ultra-processed foods suffered from growth retardation and their bone strength was adversely affected. Under close examination, the researchers detected high levels of cartilage build up in the rodents’ growth plates, the “engine” of bone growth. When subjected to additional tests it was found that the RNA genetic profiles of cartilage cells that had been subjected to junk food were showing characteristics of impaired bone development.

The team then sought to analyse how specific eating habits might impact bone development and replicated this kind of food intake for the rodents. The rodents’ weekly nutritional intake was divided – 30% came from a ‘controlled’ (healthy) diet, 70% from ultra-processed foods. These rodents experienced moderate damage to their bone density albeit there were fewer indications of cartilage build up in their growth plates.  The research concluded that even in reduced amounts, the ultra-processed foods can have a definite negative impact on skeletal growth.

Carlos Monteiro is one of the world’s leading experts on nutrition and he is quoted as saying that there is no such thing as a healthy ultra-processed food. He is clearly right.  It seems likely that even if the amount of fats, carbs nitrates and other known harmful substances are reduced, junk foods still possess their damaging attributes. Every part of the body is prone to this damage and certainly those systems that remain in the critical stages of development.

Some may criticise these findings, saying that the study was done on rats rather than humans. However, science continually finds merit in research conducted with rodents, because their genetic, biological and behaviour characteristics closely resemble those of humans, and many symptoms of human conditions can be replicated in mice and rats.




Are our children eating too many ultra-processed foods?

Earlier this month, the results of research in England using information from thousands of children over a number of years was published.  The conclusion is that urgent action is needed to reduce the harms of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) of the health of British children. Of greatest concern is the tendency some children show towards becoming overweight or obese and continuing bad eating habits into adulthood, leading to a range of physical and mental health problems, including diabetes and cancers.

What are ultra-processed foods? These are food and drinks that are heavily processed during their making, such as frozen pizzas, fizzy drinks, mass-produced packaged bread, shop-bought cookies and cakes and some ready-to-eat meals.

The authors explain the research, published today (14 June 2021) in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, provides important evidence of the potential damage of consuming highly processed foods which are often cheap, widely available and highly marketed. They say that action is needed urgently to reduce UPF consumption among children.

Professor Christopher Millett, NIHR Professor of Public Health at Imperial College London, said, “Through a lack of regulation, and enabling the low cost and ready availability of these foods, we are damaging our children’s long-term health. We urgently need effective policy change to redress the balance, to protect the health of children and reduce the proportion of these foods in their diet.”

Dr. Eszter Vamos, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Public Health Medicine at Imperial, said, “One of the key things we uncover here is a dose-response relationship. This means that it’s not only the children who eat the most ultra-processed foods have the worst weight gain, but also the more they eat, the worse this gets.”

“Childhood is a critical time when food preferences and eating habits are formed with long-lasting effects on health. We know that if children have an unhealthy weight early in life, this tends to trace into adolescence and then adulthood. We also know that an excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to a number of health issues including being overweight or obese, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and cancer later in life, so the implications are enormous.”

This latest study provides new, important data on the impact of industrial food processing, in which foods are modified to change their consistency, taste, colour, shelf life or other attributes through mechanical or chemical alteration—typically lacking in traditional, home-prepared meals—on child health.

Professor Millett was featured in the recent BBC One documentary “What Are We Feeding Our Kids?” in which he said, “Today in Britain, two in every three calories consumed amongst children and adolescents is derived from this group [of ultra-processed foods]. They’re everywhere, they’re cheap, and they’re heavily marketed. So they’re very difficult to resist and very difficult to avoid.”

Is the situation so different in South Africa?  We need to be very aware of what our children are eating.  If they are not eating their freshly prepared meals at home and rely on ‘fast food’ conveniently provided somewhere else, chances are that their diet will be lacking.





How does movement build a child’s brain?

(Extracted from the website, by Jacqueline Amor-Zitzelberger.

Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) focuses on the role of movement in helping brain development and learning.  Just how does movement build brain structure?

At birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion brain cells, roughly as many nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way, and almost all the brain will ever have. In the brain, nerve cells called neurons are present at birth and eventually form trillions of connections over the first years of life depending on the child’s life experiences. These neural connections start to send messages to each other to meet the requirements of the body and brain. Compare this to posting messages to friends on Facebook or Instagram. If you send a message to 500 friends, and each of those friends, in turn, send or forward that message to another 500 friends, and so on, the messages or signals expand exponentially.

This messaging is important for the brain-body connection. The ability of the brain to develop and maintain neural connections is based on reflexive movements (before and following birth) and then new movement and play experiences of toddlers and young children. Brain cell connections are lost or pruned away as a result of limited activity or stimulation. “Move it or lose it” is true for both children and adults.

Researchers say that there are “windows of opportunity,” or sensitive periods, in children’s lives when specific types of learning take place. For instance, scientists have determined that the neurons for vision begin sending messages back and forth rapidly at two to four months of age, peaking in intensity at eight months. Babies begin to take much more notice of the world during this period. If a child misses this opportunity, that does not mean that the child will be impaired, but her brain may not develop circuitry to its full potential, or optimal development, in that area. The nervous system does not even mature until somewhere between the ages of 15 to 25, so during this time, parents and teachers can continue to provide a variety of active play opportunities through those years to promote further brain growth.

Brain development does not stop after early childhood, but the window narrows, making it harder for adults to learn skills they missed during childhood.  Ultimately, our adult capabilities are determined by childhood activities.

Children need to move to activate the brain. And the brain responds in full force allowing them to move in a variety of ways including crossing the mid-lines. Songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and “Hokey Pokey” are examples of crossing the midlines of the body. Why are these action songs and the mid-line important for brain development? The motions to the songs encourage children to cross all three body mid-lines, reaching the top to bottom, left to right, and front to back. These physical movements demand coordination from both the left and right sides of the brain. This strengthens the tissues called the corpus callosum that divides the two sides of the brain that is important for communication from one side of the brain to the other. These movements help to develop and strengthen neural pathways laying the foundation for further development in language, literacy, and math skills.

Crossing mid-lines can help stimulate brain activity in adults too. Try this activity. Extend one arm straight in front of you. It doesn’t matter which one. Point your index finger, and draw a large, imaginary figure 8 lying on its side, crossing left to right in front of your body. Run your finger along this imaginary figure several times. Now switch to the opposite arm. It may be harder since it is probably your non-dominate arm. Trace the same large figure 8 several times. This activity stimulates both sides of your brain and refreshes your thinking process. It might help you get through those long afternoon workdays.

There is one easy way that you can boost your child’s brainpower through movement activities. Turn on your children’s (or your) favourite music and have a dance party. You’ll have so much fun that no one will realize that you’re building your child’s brain!


Has your child developed the basic movement skills?

Movement in the earliest years helps brain development as well as future physical abilities.  Keeping up a healthy level of physical activity is very important for health and wellbeing, which is why young people (aged 5-17 years) are encouraged to keep a balance of high levels of physical activity, low levels of sedentary time (and sufficient sleep) each day.

In order to enjoy physical activities, children need to develop several fundamental movement skills.  These are: balancing, running, jumping, catching, hopping, throwing, galloping, skipping, leaping and kicking.  Having these skills means that children can coordinate their bodily movements and engage in games, sports, gymnastics, dancing and other physical recreations.  Without them, they are more likely to seek out non-physical pastimes.

Encourage your children to play games that involve these forms of movements – be alert to their ability to master each.  Amanda Morin ( suggests the following that might help:

  1. Trampolines

Using a trampoline is a great activity to improve balance.  If an outdoor trampoline is not possible, there are also mini-trampolines for supervised indoor use. Keep in mind that it’s important to follow safety rules.

  1. Hopscotch

Hopping and jumping require strong gross motor skills, balance, and coordination. Hopscotch is a simple way to practice those skills. (As a bonus, it can help practice number skills, too!) If you don’t have a paved area to draw on or a playground nearby, you can set up an indoor hopscotch grid on the floor, using tape.

  1. Martial arts classes

Mаrtіаl аrtѕ trаіnіng is a good way to help children develop strength in their arms and legs. Actions like kicking, punching, and grappling work to develop those core muscle groups. It can help kids with balance and knowing where their body is in space.

  1. Playground play

Playing on park playgrounds can be very beneficial. Swinging on a swing set can help kids develop balance. It also helps them learn how to coordinate shifting their weight and moving their legs back and forth. You may also want to encourage your child to use “unstable” playground equipment like rope ladders and wobble bridges. While they can be scary before kids get used to them, they help work trunk muscles.

  1. Balloon and bubble play

Balloons and bubbles are a unique way to build gross motor skills because you can’t predict where they’re going to go. Children can chase bubbles and try to pop as many as possible. While chasing them, they have to run, jump, zigzag, and move in ways that require sudden shifts in balance and weight. The same goes for throwing and trying to catch or kick balloons. For more structured play, you can set up a game of balloon volleyball.

  1. Tricycles, scooters, and pedal cars

Some children who struggle with gross motor skills may learn to ride a tricycle or bike later than their peers. But there are alternatives they can use to practice balance. Some tricycles come with handles so you can push while your child practices pedalling. Or you could invest in a sturdy scooter or a pedal car. They’re all stepping stones to riding a bicycle. Once your child gets the hang of it, you can even set up an obstacle course or draw a track with chalk.

  1. Dancing

Whether it’s a dance class or merely dancing around inside, dancing is good gross motor practice. It helps children develop balance, coordination, and motor sequencing skills. It also helps build children’s awareness of rhythm. For little ones, try using songs with lyrics that add movement, like “I’m a Little Teapot” or “The Hokey Pokey.”

  1. Obstacle courses

Obstacle courses get kids moving and give them a goal to accomplish. For an indoor course, use furniture, pillows, and blankets to create areas to crawl on, under, and through. Outdoors, you can use things like hula-hoops to jump in and out of, jumping jacks, belly crawling, bear walking, and other creative movements that challenge your child to balance, crawl, jump, and run.

Use these winter holidays to ensure that your children are moving well and moving enough.  School time should include plenty of opportunity to develop these skills as well.




What is balance – and why is it important for learning?

Balance is a term frequently used by health professionals working in a wide variety of fields. There is no single accepted definition of balance and some professionals use the term ‘postural control’ as a synonym.  Others consider postural control as the act of maintaining, achieving or restoring a state of balance during any posture or activity.

Balance is the ability to maintain a controlled body position while performing a task, whether it is sitting at a table, walking along a balance beam or stepping up a flight of stairs. To function effectively, we need the ability to maintain controlled positions easily during both static (still) and dynamic (moving) activities.

Static balance is the ability to hold a stationary position with control (e.g. “Freeze” or “statue” games). Dynamic balance is the ability to remain balanced while engaged in movement (e.g. running or bike riding).

Apart from keeping our bodies stable in a desired position, balance enables us to know where our bodies are in the environment.  To achieve this, it needs good function of 3 senses (vision, vestibular, proprioceptive), central (brain) integration, and an effective motor output.  More specifically, our sense of balance is specifically regulated by a complex interaction between the following parts of the nervous system (collectively known as the sensory motor system):

  1. The inner ears (also called the labyrinth) monitor the directions of motion, such as turning or forward-backward, side-to-side, and up-and-down motions.
  2. The eyes observe where the body is in space (i.e., upside down, right side up, etc.) and also the directions of motion.
  3. Skin pressure receptors such as those located in the feet and seat sense what part of the body is down and touching the ground.
  4. Muscle and joint sensory receptors (proprioceptors) report what parts of the body are moving.
  5. The central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) processes all the bits of information from the four other systems to make some coordinated sense out of it all.

As Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners, we are aware that many children have not acquired effortless balance. Further investigation often reveals inefficient functioning of one or more of the areas listed above.

Because our sensory motor system is hugely implicated in learning and behaviour, any area that remains underdeveloped may cause difficulties in learning and meeting classroom demands. This means that clumsiness or other signs of poor balance is a signal that the child may need some intervention to help or prevent school challenges.










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