Movement and Cogntion
Most neuroscientists around the globe agree that movement is strongly tied to cognition and learning, yet we are seeing a drastic drop in opportunities for such in the school setting. Recess allotment times are being cut down to 15-20 minute increments and some schools have taken it out completely.
Rather than suspecting a flaw within the system, the children are often viewed as flawed themselves if they have difficulty adhering to the standard protocol.
Students who crave movement more frequently than others are viewed as an interference, or often referred for therapy, due to their "inability to sit still". Developmental Delay, ADHD and Sensory Processing Deficit referrals for occupational therapy services are steadily increasing. According to the CDC, recent surveys show that over the past 12 years, diagnoses for Developmental Disability have increased by 17.1% and Attention Deficits Disorders have increased by 33%. So despite our efforts to cut playtime in order to allot more time for teaching new skills, children’s skill levels are still declining.
The contrast between what is taking place in schools and what has been concluded in research labs worldwide over the past 20 years regarding the necessity of movement for priming the brain for learning is truly confounding to me as a parent and a therapist.
Various studies support the relationship between (6):
- Movement and the visual systems (2)
- Movement and the language systems (3)
- Movement and Memory (4)
- Movement and Attention (5)
Even if an active motor output (i.e. a movement of the body) may not occur when learning something new, the movement center of the brain, the cerebellum, is actively working to sequence, time, practice, correct and rehearse this new skill before it is ever carried out. That is how strongly movement and learning are connected!
Let me introduce you to the cerebellum, the motor control center of the brain. It is located at the base of the skull and is densely packed with neurons. It has some 40 million nerve fibers—40 times more than even the highly complex optical tract. (6) The interesting thing about these nerve fibers is that they don't only run from the cortex to the cerebellum, but most of these nerve fibers are actually outbound, meaning they travel from the cerebellum back to the the cortex (7). Basically, 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 that create the motor response or action (i.e. learning a new sport: action is to swing the bat, learning a new word: action is saying the new word, learning a new math skill: action is performing the math problem) . What this all means is that the cerebellum, or movement center, is an integral part of the learning process.
A study out of the University of Illinois discovered a link between fitness levels of 9 and 10-year old children, cortical thickness and math scores. Specifically, the study positively correlated higher fitness levels with higher math scores and thinner cortical sections, signifying higher brain maturation.
Another study by Terrence Dwyer found that exercise improves both classroom behavior and overall academic performance.
These are just a handful of study among hundreds of supporting research.
Thankfully, mainstream media and in-tune parents and teachers are catching on, even though public policy changes are lagging. Play-based, nature-based and alternative schools are rising in popularity and play and recess restrictions are making big headlines. Recently in Florida, recess proponents, otherwise known as "recess moms," helped pass the daily recess bill, requiring that every elementary student in Florida be allowed 20 minutes of uninterrupted recess every day. Since research studies continue to show that children need at least 60-minutes of physical activity a day, savvy teachers are getting creative about their classroom structure and schedule, to allow for more movement breaks throughout the day.
The Role of Sensory Input
Sensory input is simply what our senses (sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing) take in and send to our central nervous system. In my experience as a pediatric occupational therapist, I have found that engaging different sensory systems can significantly impact a child's academic performance and attention. Sensory input can be either stimulating/alerting or calming. Alerting/stimulating sensory input correlates with increased attention and readiness to learn, while other types of sensory input can help to calm an overly anxious or rambunctious child down.
Sitting down for for long periods of time (typical in most kindergarten programs) while information is being dictated does not stimulate the senses. It engages the auditory system only, which is often a less developed system in young children.
When a child engages in free outdoor play, they are engaging multiple sensory systems all at once. Going down the slide, swinging on a swing, playing in the sand, yelling loudly, spinning in circles, climbing, running fast, jumping rope, etc. These actions are all sending alerting messages to the central nervous system that positively affect attention skills. Even when free outdoor play isn't an option, there are so many ways you can:
- Engage the sensory systems
- Stimulate the movement center of the brain
This will help prime the brain for learning within the four walls of a classroom.
So what are you waiting for? Parents, get your kids outside. Teachers, I can imagine that restrictions and time-constraints within the school system make it tough. But get creative, move those desks aside and get those little bodies moving, touching, feeling, seeing and doing!
Stay tuned for part 2! I am excited to share with you:
2. Shulman, Gordon L., Maurizio Corbetta, Randy Lee Buckner, Julie A. Fiez, Francis M. Miezin, Marcus E. Raichle, and Steven E. Petersen. 1997. Common blood flow changes across visual tasks: I. Increases in subcortical structures and cerebellum but not in nonvisual cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 9(5): 624-647
3. Schlösser R, Hutchinson M, Joseffer S, et al. Functional magnetic resonance imaging of human brain activity in a verbal fluency task. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 1998;64:492-498
4. Desmond JE, Gabrieli JD, Wagner AD, Ginier BL, Glover GH. Lobular patterns of cerebellar activation in verbal working-memory and finger-tapping tasks as revealed by functional MRI. J Neurosci. 1997 Dec 15;17(24):9675-85. PubMed PMID: 9391022.
5. Allen G, Buxton RB, Wong EC, Courchesne E. Attentional activation of the cerebellum independent of motor involvement. Science. 1997 Mar 28;275(5308):1940-3. PubMed PMID: 9072973.
6. Jensen, Eric. Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 2nd Edition. 2005. Chapter 4. <http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/104013/chapters/Movement-and-Learning.aspx>
7. Middleton FA, Strick PL. Anatomical evidence for cerebellar and basal ganglia involvement in higher cognitive function. Science. 1994 Oct 21;266(5184):458-61. PubMed PMID: 7939688.
8. Chaddock-Heyman L, Erickson KI, Kienzler C, King M, Pontifex MB, et al. (2015) Correction: The Role of Aerobic Fitness in Cortical Thickness and Mathematics Achievement in Preadolescent Children. PLOS ONE 10(9): e0138166
9. Dwyer, T., Sallis, J. F., Blizzard, L., Lazarus, R., & Dean, K. (2001). Relation of Academic Performance to Physical Activity and Fitness in Children. Pediatric Exercise Science, 13, 225-238.