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 movement and physical activity within the school setting.
Schools aiming to improve their students performance on standardized tests are cutting out recess, physical education, music and arts programs in order to make more time for academics and test preparation.
Recess allotment times are being cut down to 15-20 minute increments and many schools have opted to take recess out completely. It is common for first and second graders in public schools to have no break from learning at all, a fact that makes me wince every time I read it.
The problem is that despite all these efforts, US student’s academic performance still lags that of their peers in many other countries. In fact, the United States underperforms on standardized tests in math and science when compared to many other industrialized nations. The Programme for International Students (also known as PISA) is a nation-wide test that measures reading ability, math skills and science literacy for 15-year olds across the nation. The most recent PISA scores (taken in 2015) ranked the US, a nation who spends more capita per student than almost any other nation, an unimpressive 38th out of 71 in math and 24th in science.
The students scores are struggling but the real ugly truth is that the children themselves are suffering within the school environment more than ever. Childhood depression and anxiety rates are higher than they’ve ever been. ADHD diagnoses have been on a steady incline over the past several years.
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%.
I refuse to believe that our children are the ones that are getting less "capable of learning." I whole-heartedly believe it is an environmental issue. I believe the problem lies in the systems in which we are placing our children in.
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.
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)
The amazing truth that these studies point to is that 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 still actively working during all of these above learning experiences. During learning (of language/memory/attention or anything through the visual system such as reading new material) the cerebellum is actively working to sequence, time, practice, correct and rehearse these new skill before it is ever carried out. This just goes to show how strongly interconnected movement and learning of all kinds are!
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. That almost every type of new information processed and learned in the brain must pass through the movement center of the brain before it becomes an acquired skill or new piece of cataloged information.
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.
That study reinforced the results of a 1998 study, which found that when 43 fourth-grade students were given recess, they worked more or fidgeted less than when they were not given recess.
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 as much as you possibly can. Talk to your school administration and school district officials about your concern with the lack of physical activity at your school. Speak up! Talk to other parents and teachers about your concerns about recess restrictions. Call or email local congressman. If you’re passionate about it like I am, become a play advocate or recess mom like me. Stand up for your child’s right to be a child.
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! Give as many quick movement breaks as you can. Find a way to fit in physical activity. Talk to administration about your concerns too.
Lets all agree to fight aside one another to change the system in order to meet the needs of the children instead of trying to change the children to meet the needs of the system.
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.