Written by Lisa Cipriani for Laval Families Magazine, Issue 15 , Friday October 23, 2015
With a multitude of applications for babies, school children, teens, adults and the elderly, Brain Gym® opens the doors to reaching our full potential. First introduced and developed by Dr. Paul Dennison in the 1970s and early 1980s, Brain Gym® is part of a broader area of study coined Educational Kinesthetics, or Edu-K.
Today, after continued research in the areas of education, psychology, neural and muscular functions, Dr. Dennison’s work is now backed by stronger scientific research that has emerged through the advent of better technology and the thousands of anecdotal contributions of educators and teachers. Brain Gym® programs are now being used in over 80 countries worldwide, and its educational materials and books translated to over 40 languages. Brain Gym® is having more than its ‘moment’ in recent years, but perhaps it’s a resurgence that couldn’t have come at a better time. Schools all over the world have incorporated elements of Brain Gym® into the daily classroom routine, all with the understanding of the astounding impact of movement on learning.
In a nutshell, Brain Gym® is a series of 26 simple movements that can prepare the student for learning, enabling improved concentration and comprehension, better eye-hand coordination and helping both the left and right hemispheres of the brain work harmoniously together, also called whole brain learning. The Brain Gym® movements promote more efficient communication between the brain and the body and focus on the key sensorimotor abilities that make learning easier. The physical movements ‘speak to’ and activate different areas of the brain, allowing the learner to become more alert, focused and ready to learn. The simple movements organize the body and brain on a neurophysiological level, which promote ease with the physical skills required for learning. In fact, the activities have been designed so that there is series of movements to activate each major part of the brain, from the brain stem to the limbic system to the neocortex respectively.
“Brain Gym® can be used to calm the body to reduce stress, it can be used to exercise the eyes to get ready for reading, it can be used to activate both hemispheres of the brain to come up with creative ideas, to counter writer’s block, or help with memorization for an exam,” says Lisa Marcovici, a licenced Brain Gym® consultant and Founder of Rekinéxion, a center in Mount-Royal which offers a slew of services for people of all ages surrounding the foundations of movement-based learning. Marcovici has been working with Brain Gym for 15 years, ever since she first discovered its benefits for one of her sons, who at 5 years old, was struggling to keep up in his Kindergarten classroom. After taking a workshop on the topic and seeing immediate results for her son, Marcovici was hooked. Today, Marcovici’s center offers Brain Gym® courses and workshops, which are ideal for parents, daycare educators, school teachers or anyone interested in integrating the body-brain connection.
“Brain Gym® is essentially movement-based learning…reinforcing that body-brain connection that we tend to be taught to ignore in early childhood or adulthood,” says Marcovici. In fact, many of the movements and activity programs are based on the primary infant reflexes and complex movement patterns that are still in development in early childhood, which are the building blocks for the physical skills required for learning in school later on. Examples include the ability to sit for long periods of time while maintaining focus, fluid eye-tracking for the development of reading and writing skills, physical postures required for holding a pencil properly with appropriate grip and accessing and crossing one’s body midline. Edu-K asserts that from a neuroscience perspective, new neural pathways grow when we move with intention.
Marcovici explains that there is a definite decline in cognitive skills when there’s a lack of physical activity, and this link has now been proven through a better scientific understanding of the brain and its plasticity. Children who do not have enough physical activity or sensory stimulation may have or develop learning disabilities later on when they get to school. “Any learning disability really means that a door has been closed, that we don’t have access to something in our body,” explains Marcovici. “A child that has trouble sitting still, holding a pencil or even listening just doesn’t have access to the physical skills required for learning, and this is what Brain Gym® addresses…A learning difficulty is really just a door that has been closed, and we use Brain Gym® to open those doors.” In other words, practicing Brain Gym® at home or in the classroom can reprogram the stress associated with the physical aspects of learning, ultimately re-patterning our experiences and allowing for new pathways to learning to emerge.
Though Brain Gym® can be used by anyone at any age, the benefits for students are impossible to ignore, as is the growing body of research demonstrating its effects on individual students as well as the classroom atmosphere as a whole. An elementary school teacher may use some of the movements to prepare students for learning in the morning, or for transitions in the classroom. This allows students to prepare for the physical or mental activity to come. Most Brain Gym® movements take only seconds to complete, and can be done anywhere and at any time, using only the body. No equipment or expensive material required. Once students and teachers learn how to do the 26 movements, students are typically able to choose and perform just the few they feel are needed in the moment, either sitting at their desks, standing next to their desks, or in a small corner of the classroom designated for this purpose.
“Instead of doing 10 minutes of discipline, [teachers] can do two or three minutes of Brain Gym® so the transition can happen in a more calm and pleasurable manner,” explains Marcovici. What’s more, Brain Gym® has been adapted for use with much younger children, and there are plenty of preschool activity programs designed for early childhood and for use in preschools or daycare centers.
Nadine Proteau, a Kinesthetic Facilitator and licenced Brain Gym® consultant, also first discovered the benefits of Brain Gym® when one of her children was having difficulties at school—not just academically, but socially as well. “My son would cry every morning when he had to take the bus to school; he was very introverted and was uncomfortable talking to his peers,” says Proteau. “He was also having academic issues in the first grade, as he was very behind in his reading skills.” After a naturopath began doing some Brain Gym® activities with him once a week, Proteau saw immediate results. She continued to do the exercises with her son every day at home, and within three weeks, to the school teacher’s amazement, he had managed to advance by two interim reading levels in grade 1.
“It was really like night and day,” says Proteau. “Not only was he improving at school, but his short and long term memory were strengthened, and he was better able to cope with his shyness around others.” Over time, her son’s grades went from low 40s to mid-70s, all without medication or other interventions. A former gymnastics teacher, Proteau knew she wanted to pursue Brain Gym® further, so she proceeded to take all of the required courses for licensure as a consultant, and continues to study the body-brain connection to this day. As Proteau explains it, movement IS health, and we learn when we move.
Aside from school-based applications, Brain Gym® has been adapted for special needs individuals, autism spectrum disorders, those with lost or damaged mobility, and for the elderly living in residences. It has even been used to train high level athletes. Carol Ann Erickson, a licenced Educational Kinesiologist, former school teacher and athletic trainer based in the United States, has been using Brain Gym® for over 25 years. “Back then, I really wanted to fuse Edu-K with athletic training and build upon its applications in both arenas,” she says.
Erickson, who is one of only about 40 individuals worldwide on the Brain Gym® International Faculty, explains that Brain Gym® is adaptable to so many groups of people because on a biological level, the way the body reacts to stress from any source is essentially the same. “The common denominator we all have is a reactive survival response. We all have a physiological response to stress no matter who we are, so we can use movement to help reorganize and diminish its effects,” says Erickson. “For those who have some skips or gaps in our development along the way, we can use Brain Gym® movements to further support that.” Due to her expertise in Educational Kinesthetics, Erickson currently teaches high level Edu-K courses around the globe—this year alone she will be teaching in eight different countries.
As Erickson, Marcovici and Proteau explain, no matter who you are, there is a physical side to the learning process. It can be argued that what is missing from our educational programs is a curriculum that takes into account the physical aspects and skills required for learning. “No one teaches these skills and yet we assume that they are acquired when a child enters school,” says Marcovici. Teachers are not necessarily trained in the physiological or neurological impact of movement on learning, despite being the individuals charged with educating our children on a daily basis. “Now in 2015, we have a body of research that is both scientific and academic, and plenty of anecdotal evidence from thousands and thousands of teachers who have used [Brain Gym®] in their classrooms and it worked for them and their students,” continues Marcovici.
Proteau further explains that because each student has his/her own unique profile of needs, a deeper understanding of the physical aspects of the learning process and the impact of movement on learning can help teachers and parents better support students. “We are not making miracles when we perform these movements, but small changes in the daily routine can make all the difference,” says Proteau. “Brain Gym® activities are meant to be done in the spirit of fun and play, and not much more than a few minutes a day is needed.”
For example, a student with dysgraphia (a learning difficulty associated with the inability to write coherently) may not have access to the particular parts of the brain that control the physical skills required for writing. Performing a series of movements in the Brain Gym® program designed to ease organization and classification, as well as certain ocular movements to facilitate proper eye-tracking, for example, may help that student reorganize his system to perform his task with more ease.
“In Brain Gym® we don’t diagnose, we don’t cure, we don’t prescribe, we simply take the person where they are at and put together the best program possible to attain their full potential and open any doors which may be blocked,” says Marcovici. “This empowers our children, our educators and our teachers.”
Though there are specific movements for reading, writing, doing Math, socializing, and other skills, the advantage of Brain Gym® is that children learn to become autonomous with the movements and gain a better understanding of how they feel in their own bodies as they are preparing to learn. “This is not a cookie-cutter program; it’s a customized program that children learn how to use so they have their own tool box and can choose whatever tool they need to help them get back on task,” says Erickson. “It’s designed to support learning readiness and it’s all developmentally based. It’s a simple, natural tool that can be used to enhance our lives.”
For more information about Brain Gym® or to find a licenced consultant in your area, consult the official website at www.braingym.org. Lisa Marcovici can be reached at www.rekinexion.com as well as Nadine Proteau at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa Cipriani is the Director of Centre Pédagogique La Renaissance, a tutoring center in Laval that provides academic services for primary, secondary, and adult learners. As an experienced teacher, Lisa has been working in education for almost 15 years.