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I Move, Therefore I Think - by Carol LaLiberte


Written by Carol LaLiberte


There is an old story that goes like this: A little frog fell into a tub of cream. Petrified, he stayed very still and thought about what to do. First, he called for his mother. When that didn't work, he thought some more and yelled FIRE, hoping someone would come to save him. Finally, since no one came, he tried a different technique. He kept moving, kicking his body about until finally he realized that this was the solution to his problem and he churned that cream into a huge chunk of butter and hopped right out of the tub to safety. Sometimes, like the little frog, we think the best while moving about rather than sitting still. At least that's what the current thinking is.

Consider this: our ancestors harvested crops and tended to livestock on farms. They built their own homes and walked most, if not all, of the places where they wanted to go. They lived without the comforts of television or computers. And as a result they didn't have many of the current health concerns of today including obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol. They didn't have to dash into a gym after work to make sure they got their thirty minutes of cardio in per day. Their lives depended upon physical movement.

Much of that has changed. Today's children are the most sedentary generation of all times. They ride in cars or busses to school, they play video games and connect with friends via their cell phones and over the internet. And while our need for exercise and movement has changed, our process of thinking has forever been altered as a result.

There is a new field of science looking at just this issue. It's called embodied cognition, this whole idea that when we move, it facilitates our brains to think better. If this branch of science had a slogan it would be "I move, therefore I think." Yet visit just about any public school in any part of the United States at any grade level and you are likely to find students sitting in classrooms through most of their school day. In fact, two subjects that often got students moving-physical education and music and movement-are often the first to be cut during tight fiscal times. Do you see the cycle? In recent years schools have reported dramatic increases in behavior problems, including shorter attention spans, more impulsive behavior, greater incidences of learning disabilities, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In fact there has been a 700% increase in the use of Ritalin in the last 10 years, 90% of which is used here in the United States (Connor, 2002)

Is there a connection between the fact that we have failing schools with discontented students and increased demands regarding testing? Is there a relationship between the skyrocketing referrals for behavioral problems, particularly in boys, and the lack of exercise gotten during the school day? We have outlawed dodge ball, moved children from tables to rows of desks, and spend quality educational time prepping students for standardized tests where their thinking and reasoning will be challenged. If only we let them pace or move while doing work, we may find, that for some kids, their concentration improves. Sadly, if you ask kids from about third grade on how they feel about school, far too many will reply that it is boring, that they don't get to have fun, and that they don't like it. With the best of intentions we are snuffing out the spark of enthusiasm that we should be fanning with regard to learning. And once we diminish that light, can it ever be rekindled? Perhaps for some but for others who get turned off from school at an early age, their feelings about wanting to learn may just be a closed book.

Recent research points to the fact that we think with our bodies, not just with our brains. In fact, children can solve math problems better if they are told they can use their hands while thinking. Actors remember their lines better when they are moving. Perhaps the research and design staff at Nintendo knew what they were doing when they introduced the Wii and got kids moving in their living rooms in order to play these video games. Shaun Gallagher, the director of the Cognitive Science program at the University of Central Florida says, ".what's going on inside the brain in large part may depend on what's going on in the body as a whole, and how that body is situated in its environment."

Think about the last time you misplaced your car keys. Did you pace back and forth, using your fingers to try and recall where you had your keys last? Did you pound your fist on the table in frustration? Moving helps our brains to recreate and to recall.

Movement and thinking have gone hand in hand since Cro-Magnon man walked the earth. His brain was primed to react quickly and move safely when being sought by predators. He moved to find food, find shelter, to survive. Our brains of today may in fact herald back to these roots.

In some ways the underpinnings of this emerging field of psychology are not new at all. In fact visit any authentic Montessori school and what you will see is a classroom full of moving children where their senses are leading the way in their learning. Dr. Montessori recognized that learning was not static but dynamic, not still but in motion. She theorized that when children traced sandpaper letters with their fingers, built cubes to learn pre-algebra, and lay on the floor to complete a task, they learned in a manner that was far better than sitting at a hard desk and focusing (or not) on the teacher at the head of the class.

So what exactly is the connection between moving and thinking? When we move, our brains are fed oxygen and glucose as blood surges through our bodies. Glucose is the equivalent of gasoline in your car-it powers thinking. Movement also increases the release of endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin in the brain. These neurotransmitters rule our moods, thinking, behavior, and personality as well as our ability to regulate anxiety, stress, and aggression. Simply put, movement helps us to feel better, to gain focus and clarity-essentials in any learning environment.

Music therapists have long recognized that humans are rhythm bound beings. The same neurons that process music and language also process math and abstract reasoning. A strong link has been shown between academic success and being able to understand and demonstrate rhythm. Yet it is estimated that only about 10% of elementary school students have competence in beat or rhythm.

When put to the test, studies reveal that making simple changes to the routine of the school day may in fact increase focus, attention, and even test scores. When students have physical education just prior to math there is greater success. When they have to focus on reading or language, if they can move and jump and run in place and get their hearts pumping, they learn faster and concentrate better. Movement is not the enemy of learning, it in fact enhances it.

In the nineties an alarm bell was sounded regarding the social and academic needs of girls with such books as "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls." Research spurred changes in school curriculum and the start of programs to help girls to achieve academically and socially. Boys now need equal attention, for their learning needs are a mismatch with the ways lots of schools are set up. In the book, "The Minds of Boys," Michael Gurian points out " the image of a schoolchild as someone sitting and reading has become the poster image for education, especially in the last fifty years. This is not a bad image, but it is an incomplete match with the way the minds of many of our boys work." This image ignores what we know to be true. We have to move in order to think and learn to our utmost potential.

So rather than seeing fidgeting and distraction as problems, it would behoove us to embrace them and recognize that rather than barking the common refrain of "sit still," we should perhaps insist that kids, "get moving."

Published by Pioneer Parent, 2008.


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