The link between Movement and Cognitive Thinking

We live in an age now where we have so many technological advancements that it is difficult to know what gadgets to buy to help our children grow and develop. As parents we want to do the best for our children but for many we are unsure what that is; so we are encouraged by companies to buy the latest gadgets in the hope that it will develop our children at a faster rate. Parents will comment that their child was sitting up, crawling and walking faster than developmental milestones suggest, not really understanding the impact this can have on their long term development.

Many babies are not getting enough tummy time and developing those all-important core muscles. They spend their days going from car seat to pram, bumbo seats, rockers and high chairs. As a result of this is babies are not developing their core muscles because all these gadgets are taking away their ability to do it by themselves. By lying on the floor, rolling over and using their upper arms to push themselves up, develops the core and upper arms and also develops the vestibular system and proprioception (I will go into more detail about these further on).

I’m hearing of many babies not crawling, they are completely missing out on this altogether and as a result of this, ocular motor development is not strengthened. Crawling helps strengthen the eye muscles to be able to focus on objects and things far away and nearby. This hand eye feedback to the brain is done thousands of times, therefore strengthening ocular vision. This will later help with reading as the eyes need to work in a coordinated way for children to be able to follow words across a page and they need to be able to focus on the words themselves. It also supports cross lateral development which helps to link the right and left brain enabling them to communicate with each other and strengthen nerve cell pathways. This will help develop reflex maturity in children.“Misner’s findings revealed that children with restricted mobility during early life showed substantially lower performance capabilities in later periods. And that development of the cerebellum is thought to play a major role in the development of the midline postural and ocular motor muscles, which have been associated with right brain development and is crucial to behavioural development”. (Neurobehavioral disorders of childhood: An evolutionary perspective, Melillio & Leisman, 2009:263)

I can’t help thinking about our evolution and how as humans we developed in a certain way for a reason. We have developmental milestones because scientists have tracked how humans are supposed to grow and develop. Each gross motor milestone connects nerve cell pathways in our brain allowing us to develop the way evolution would have us develop. We wouldn’t take an animal and place it in a baby walker in a bid to make it walk faster, we allow it to develop how it should. In playful ways. Peter Gray did some excellent research looking at tribal communities across the world. He found the commonality between them all was that children were left to play from morning until night, and in doing so were able to develop all the skills needed for life. They would watch the adults and mimic them through play which naturally makes them curious, inquisitive and have a desire for learning. They do not rush, they are not forced to sit at tables to learn the skills of their elders, everything is done in a slow fashion and they have the happiest children of all.

Passion and inspiration come from following our heart, hearing that voice within that drives us to do the things that bring us joy. Confucius tells us to find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life, but how can children do that when their tiny minds have a developmentally inappropriate curriculum thrust upon them. From my own personal experience, I took my daughter out of her last year of primary so she would miss her SAT’s, she went back into senior school a year later and by the end of the term she was expected or exceeding for the national average. The year 6 tests that she missed had no bearing on her schooling at all. Yet I afforded her the time to spend a year honing in on the things she is passionate about, which is movie making. She now has 6000+ subscribers, her videos have between 80,000 and 300,000 views and she found what she was passionate about. I did not want her to have to go through a stress that I felt unnecessary.

Self-directed learning allows children the opportunity to find what interests them and pursue learning naturally and at a pace more suited to that particular child. You only have to look at our western civilisation and the amount of children needing referrals to a variety of specialists to help with delay, disorders, anxiety and behaviour and I can’t help wonder if it is linked to the way we live our lives today. We have come so far in the past 100 years that “the rate at which our lifestyles have changed has far outpaced the evolution of our cognitive, psychological, and physiological hard-wiring” (Migliarese, 2008:1). We have got it so backwards, that today’s children are struggling to catch up in our fast paced lives and are needing support to do so. There is a mountain of research suggesting that children are not ready for formal learning until they are 7, that the left brain is not ready for it. So why are we continuing with this outdated backwards way of thinking and not following education systems that are working.

You only have to look at our school systems to know that from the age of 3, children are expected to be able to sit on the mat, listen attentively, sit at tables, so on and so forth. Eric Jenson, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind (2005) highlights that the part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning. Movement and cognition are interconnected. So why do we think we need to remove children’s ability to move in order for them to think. In doing so many children needing a variety of support and interventions to be able to cope.

What we are seeing is an increase in speech and language delay because their core muscles have not developed as babies. The muscles surrounding the neck and jaw simply do not have the muscle tone to effectively sound out the words or letters. I’m not saying that all speech and language delay is as a result of this, but our experience has highlighted how the outdoors can be used as a strategy to improve delay, therefore highlighting weak core muscles. Children are not able to sit in class and listen, they roll around on the floor or over their peers and they are labelled as fidgets and told to stop being silly and sit still. We hear that children do not know how to hold a pencil correctly or have good fine manipulative skills, so incorrect resources are bought to refine pencil control. Many settings are having to implement behaviour strategies because children are displaying actions that are not suitable in class, they look at the child instead of looking at the environment. And what is the one thing that we are supposed to be striving towards? Are children school ready! A terminology that makes my whole body contort. If we want children to be ‘school ready’ then we need to understand our central nervous system and how our foundational systems need to develop in order for cognition to take place.

 

 

Sensory Processing

We have seven senses, tactile, vestibular, proprioception, olfactory, visual, auditory and gustatory. These are the sensory foundations that need to be developed within the first few years of life. However, it is the first three that underpin all other areas of development and if one of these areas are not developed enough, then we will see a range of needs that must be addressed in order for cognitive learning to take place.

 

The above diagram highlights that Tactile, Proprioception and Vestibular are the roots that need to be embedded for us to grow. As with any hierarchy, each area must have been developed before we can even think about cognition.

As educators it is beneficial to understand this model in order to put effective strategies in place for your children. The Sensory Processing Training that my staff have accessed has been instrumental in helping us to develop our setting and inform our practice. We have been able to look at our children in a whole new light and implement effective strategies according the above diagram.

If children are struggling with any areas above the first three senses, then we will take it right back to the roots and put strategies in place to support, tactile, vestibular and proprioception.

Here is a brief overview of how the receptors feed information to the brain via the senses.

Tactile is associated with how our skin sends messages to our brain, how things feel, how much pressure and pain we can take and helps us to distinguish between hot and cold temperatures.

Vestibular is likened to a gps system that tells the body how to function, how to maintain our balance and posture. It tell the eyes what it is seeing, your ears what to receive, store and recall, how the body moves in relation to the space and pull of gravity and it allows us to navigate with movements that are fast and slow.

Proprioception refers to the sensory input and feedback that tells us about movement and body position. The receptors are located within the muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments of the body and enable us to know where our body is in relation to space and safely maneuver within the environment.

Sensory Processing Difficulties.

Children who present difficulties with sensory motor may be described as the clumsy child, the children who bump into their peers, lean all over them whilst sitting down, they haven’t got the spatial awareness so they are seeking ways in which to feel themselves. Core muscles that have not been developed properly may lead to difficulties with postural security, they may not be able to sit in the floor upright, so there bodies will wriggle and roll around in order to get that proprioception.
In the picture here, one of our children was really struggling with eating at the table, he would push his food away and want to get down immediately. He was displaying behaviour that we didn’t fully understand. During the training it was highlighted that because he doesn’t have postural security, all he knows is that he doesn’t feel comfortable, that he wants to get down. It was suggested to make sure that his feet could touch something solid in order to make his position more stable.

So we placed a chair under his feet and immediately we noticed a difference. He sat for 20-25 minutes eating his tea because his body was secure.

Listening and attention is another thing we hear from many trainee teachers that come into the setting. On reflection from the reception classes they have been in many children are classed as silly or naughty for not being able to sit and listen to what the teacher is talking about. But if we follow the tree from the roots up and liken it to Maslows Hierarchy of needs, educators need to know if the foundational system is secure before any kind of learning can take place. This allows us to look at the needs of the child in a different way and implement other strategies that may be more effective. We always find our children are more open to any adult initiated activities in the afternoon because they have spent the morning running, jumping, scrambling, climbing, swinging, rolling and playing in the mud. All the things needed to support the tactile, vestibular and proprioception needs. If we know that there are children who struggle to sit still and listen,  then we will either place them by a stump or tree so that they can lean on it and have the stability needed to concentrate.

For our children who have sensory diets implemented, that have been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder we know that if they start to get boisterous with their peers, they are in need of proprioception. So we may get them to lie on top of us and squeeze us, or we may cross their arms over their chest and give them a bear hug. We may get them to jump up and down or roll across the floor, anything that will allow them to feel the muscles in their bodies.


Our day to day activities to support tactile include mud play, drawing with charcoal, mixing chalks onto wet trees to create paint, crawling across leaf litter and filling and pouring muddy water from one container to another. Balance beams, rope swings, balancing logs and hammocks all help with vestibular development. Climbing also helps with proprioception and vestibular.

Our environment is multi sensory and gives children the opportunity to develop those foundational systems with ease and little expense. I often reflect on our evolution and how at one time this was all children had. Nature has always given us everything we need in order to thrive and develop, but somewhere along the way we thought we knew better and implemented a range of gadgets to push children to develop faster.  We champion the woodland environment because it has everything in place to meet the foundational needs of babies and young children without having to spend any money on resources.

These are my thoughts and reflections about the world we live in, from the observations I’ve made from the children who come to us and how myself and my staff team feel generally when we are outdoors. Ghandi once said “Be the change you want to see in the world” and this is mine. Our children come to us to enjoy being children, to be allowed to engage in self directed learning and to understand what it means to be at one with nature. They will be natures future champions because if we don’t in-still this love from an early age who is going to look after it later on.

 

Julie White (Founder of N2N)

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