The field of neuroscience is peppered with information about the strong links between movement and learning. We know through science that early movements are crucial for brain development and recently, more and more studies are appearing to support the view that children need movement to learn efficiently.
In spite of this, schools seem to be determined to limit opportunities for movement, both in classroom settings and in the school time-table. Most teachers are scared to introduce movement breaks into their classrooms for fear of discipline problems and losing control; schools are pushing for even longer times spent sitting at desks engaged in academic tasks. It seems that the fear of poor performances in standardised tests is part of the reason for the ever increasing pressure on children to learn skills through more academic time – including time spent on piles of homework.
South Africa spends a fortune on education. Despite this, the academic performance of our learners lags far behind the rest of the world. The additional time spent on academics at school and at home does not seem to be improving matters.
More importantly, if we deny our learners the chance to engage in movement during the school day and afternoons at home, we are depriving them of a vital and necessary ingredient of childhood. Children love to move; they need to move. Those who cannot sit still are labelled as disruptive, hyperactive or some other popular label. Many young children are presenting with anxiety, developmental delays and depression.
I do not believe that so many of our children are so incapable of learning skills and acquiring knowledge. Those who report to Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners are found to be bright and capable but very often not learning ready. Those children have not had the chance to develop the neural networks needed for efficient learning. The reason may well be because they were and still are deprived of the movement opportunities needed for this to happen.
It is time for pre-school educators to face this challenge and introduce brain-developing movements into their daily programme. ILT has carefully worked out programmes for them to follow – designed because we are passionate about ensuring that our young learners succeed at school. These movements prime the brain for learning.
Two examples of the significance of movement:
It helps to understand the role of the ‘movement centre of the brain’ in learning. The area of brain responsible for coordinated movements is called the cerebellum. This is also known as the ‘little brain’ at the base of the big brain (the cerebral cortex). Although it might look very much smaller, it is incredibly densely packed with brain cells. Nerve cells (neurons) do not all run from the cortex to the cerebellum so that the brain can ‘order’ the cerebellum to move the body around easily. Instead, most of the cerebellar neurons are outbound, meaning that they travel from the cerebellum up to the cortex. In terms of brain function, this means that during learning, information is sent to the cerebellum, where the absorbed information is processed, practiced, timed, rehearsed and corrected before it is sent back to the areas of the cortex that are responsible for the motor response or action. In other words, when we learn a new word, the action is to say or spell the word; when we learn a new maths skill, the action is to perform the skill by solving a maths problem. This shows that the cerebellum is an area crucial to the learning process. All new information passes through the cerebellum before it becomes a learned skill or new piece of knowledge.
Secondly, we need to understand the role of the sensory motor system.
We use our senses to help our brains ‘know’ what is going on in the external world. The media these days publishes many articles about how a child needs good sensory integration in order to be able to pay attention and learn. It is fairly obvious that our senses of sight, hearing, touch and so on have to be functioning well so that we can absorb learning events. But sitting for long periods of time does not stimulate all the senses. Listening to a teacher’s voice might stimulate the auditory system but this is one of the least developed senses in a young child! Compare this to a child who is playing outside. Actions such as swinging, sliding, building sand castles, playing catch, skipping rope and so on, engage multiple sensory motor systems at the same time. These actions are firing neurons that are similarly needed in paying attention – a crucial ability in a classroom.
We need parents and teachers to join forces to encourage a change in all our classrooms and time-tables. Movement needs to be a major focus during the school day – rather than be seen as a misbehaviour.