It might surprise you that physical movement is crucial to learning. Most people think that the key to learning is the ability to sit still, be quiet and finish the assignment.

As a parent, it seems to make sense to tell your child that they can’t go out to play until their homework is done.

As a teacher, recess provides a “reward” that is often withheld from children who have been goofing off or who have not finished their assignment.

But recess is not a reward. Movement is as important to learning as any concept taught in the classroom. And for some children, including many unique learners, it is more important.

Want to Improve Writing? You’ve Got to Move it!

Michael sat at his desk laboring over his social studies worksheet. The classroom was quiet because all his classmates were at recess. Every few minutes he would look longingly out the window as he slowly wrote the answers on his paper.

In fourth grade, his teacher expected him to write faster and much neater. His writing was too large and messy and often didn’t fit properly on the line. It looked more like the writing of a kindergartner. She also expected him to pay attention and sit still. He had been unable to do either during the prior class period. That’s why he was missing recess. Again.

His teacher wanted Michael to do well. She could tell he was very bright and wished he would try harder. She was frustrated by his lack of progress, but she really was trying to help him improve.

Unfortunately, in the teacher’s effort to help Michael, she took away the very thing that could make a real difference. Recess.

Movement is necessary for learning to occur.

Don’t skip PE. Don’t skip recess. The body must act on the world around it in order to receive the feedback that is necessary for learning to build on learning.

The more complex the movement patterns, the more intricately the brain is able to perform. These enriching experiences all help our students to become more nimble in both brain and body.

Research in the field of neuroplasticity suggests that movement patterns that incorporate left to right side activities are especially valuable in working the right and left-brain hemispheres. Physical coordination and mental problem solving have been shown to improve following such movement activities.

Some students have fine motor challenges and inefficient printing, writing, or typing skills. These students will benefit from variations of the following ideas that stimulate right and left brain hemisphere activity. Stimulating both hemispheres of the brain leads to improved coordination and an increase in focused attention:

The Body

As stated above, don’t skip PE or recess. Students must move!

When in the class, offer opportunities to use large muscle groups to reach, squat, bend and challenge their balance by standing on one foot.

Modify these activities for age-appropriate interest. For example, older students may prefer yoga postures or noncompetitive Freeze Tag. Variations of trendy cross fit type exercises may also be beneficial as well as obstacle courses.

Spatial Processing

Advance the above strategy by adding language that identifies the spatial relationships. Instruct the students to move their body up, down, left, right, under, and around. Modify for age appropriateness. Younger students may enjoy a form of noncompetitive Simon Says while older students may prefer to lead small groups in instructing or mirroring others.

Printing Skills

Remember that writing isn’t an easy skill to learn. It requires many systems to work together. Use T.I.P. as a guideline to set your expectations.

T – Time

Recognize that the speed of performance should be the least priority. The student needs to demonstrate quality prior to speed. Speed is very important, but not yet.

I – In-Between Spaces

Recognize that the horizontal space between letters and words require a specific type of spatial processing and must be instructed, practiced and feedback provided for many unique learners.

Further, it is important to recognize that unique learners have difficulty discerning vertical space. Spatial awareness on the vertical plane allows letters to be shaped correctly and placed in their correct orientation to the line and correct orientation to the height of neighboring letters.

It is the relationship in size and space between letters that is of equal importance to the actual shape of the letter for the reader to be able to discern the text.

P – Posture

Beginners who are learning to print letters and words should place the paper straight in front of them.

Children who are able to print sentences across the page should place the paper at a slight angle to follow the natural arc of the writing hand.

The “helping hand” is of equal importance in holding the paper still and contributing to correct and aligned posture. The “helping hand” should be relaxed on the paper. Ideally, the student should be able to focus on muscle control in the writing hand and relaxation of the “helping hand”.

Arm and Hand Readiness

The shoulder needs to hold still while the student draws, writes, or types. Teach students, “Shoulders down, squeeze shoulder blades together, take a deep breath in and gently exhale, and let the shoulders go…”

Do this in a great range of postures, whether the students are sitting still or moving or while performing balance exercises. Try to spontaneously perform this shoulder posture exercise in the middle of a class lesson.

Younger students may benefit from imagery that helps maintain this posture. Have them pretend their fingers are the candles on a birthday cake. They will place their hands together with index fingers extended and pretending to blow out the imaginary flame at the tip of their index fingers.

Finger Coordination for Improved Writing

Handwashing is the be-all-end-all of fine motor coordination exercises. Insist on using proper handwashing methods. Correct poor technique. Maybe you’ll even reduce the teacher and student illness rate.

There are many other easily available fine motor coordination activities available in a classroom. For example:

  • the correct use of keys on computer keyboards
  • the correct grasp of crayons and pencils
  • the proper use of scissors
  • the successful handling of fasteners, lunch containers, and shoelaces.

Mimicking finger movement patterns should be performed easily and rhythmically by students. Try variations of “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. For the older student, try familiar rhythms or musical beats to appropriate and popular music.

The existing education model has a great variety of enriching experiences for students to move, facilitate right and left-brain hemisphere connections, and develop an appropriate level of alertness.

Remember, they are learning at all times, even when worksheets are completed and put away. Help develop their brains by creating movement opportunities.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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