Since Dr. Jean Ayres' groundbreaking work in the 70's focusing on sensory integration, occupational therapists have been attempting to educate people about the primary occupation of childhood:  play for development and learning.  

Finally, a fellow occupational therapist Angela Hanscom's posts about this have gone viral.  Ms. Hanscom's post titled "The right and surprisingly wrong way to get kids to sit still in class." has been shared on my Facebook wall a dozen times in the past 6 months.  

You can read her post by clicking here: (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/10/07/the-right-and-surprisingly-wrong-ways-to-get-kids-to-sit-still-in-class/)

This post and the viral nature of it brought up several things I address daily working in public schools.

Childhood hangs in a precarious place.  The foundations of development are quickly becoming castles in sand as our culture has left the 4 dimensional playground for the 2 dimensional classroom and screen time.  

Research shows that children in the United States are spending on average, 90% of their time indoors.(1)  With a lack of developmental opportunities, children of today are less developed than prior generations when entering school.  

The idea that teachers “don't have time” is as real as the sunrise each day.  Teachers are overwhelmed with mounting tasks, responsibilities and numbers. However, if we push our thinking just slightly outside the box that is the system, a whole new world opens up.  If we add in a hefty dose of support from specialists such as occupational therapists (employed by every school district), we can find many alternative ways to incorporate necessary movement into a day.  What teachers need to be able to explain is how implementing more movement will lead to better academic progress.  

Teachers need (mostly to explain to the administrations or old policies they are tied to) the “why’s” and “how’s” for implementing new strategies.  

Here is a list of 5 simple things teachers can do right now to increase movement and attention.  

  1. Let them move.
  2. Advocate every chance you can.
  3. Prime the systems.
  4. No money?  Make the problem part of the solution.
  5. Create Mystery.  

1.  Let them move.  In the book, Brain Rules by John Medina, it tells us that most human adult’s can only sit still and pay focused attention for 10 minutes before loosing attention. (2) For children it is likely less.  Movement is nutrition for the brain.  Moving creates brain connections.  

  • Example of movement:  An “errand” placed at periodic times of the day will actually increase energy and attention so that children are more available to learn.  There is a natural “sweet spot” of alertness that happens when the body and brain are primed.  This errand can look like: a miniature scavenger hunt across the play ground to collect 5 Acorns, or 3 leaves, or 6 stones etc. 

2.  Advocate every chance you can.  We can't wait for a change.  We have to do it now.  There are millions of children and teachers who need to make changes now, within the current constructs of the system.  We must begin somewhere, and we can't wait for perfection.  Example:  

  • A)  Speak about this every time you have the chance, to anyone who will listen.  Get parents lit up and on fire about the importance of natural development. Have a classroom family potluck once a month or once a quarter.  Pick a park or outdoor location.  Use the games and ideas from a book such as: Coyote’s guide to connecting with nature by Jon Young (3).  Check out our online information and upcoming trainings at: foundationsinnature.com.  You only need a critical mass of 4 families to "buy in" and have a loud enough voice to be heard.  Imagine if each teacher at your school had 4 committed families; how fast could change happen?  
  • B)  Incorporate movement education into parent teacher nights.  Ask your occupational therapist to do an information night about development outside. (Find Resources on this blog or website.)
  • C) Use technology to create data showing that when you incorporated frequent or extended periods of movement outside, the children’s academics improved (even though you lessened the instructional minutes).  Educational change happens if we can show data and research to the people who make decisions.  If success increases, people listen.  (Look for data collection resources coming soon here.)  
  • D)  Never give up.  If nothing else, you will know that the children who’s education you are charged with will forever be better because of your championing.  They will come back to thank you: guaranteed.  

3.  Prime the system.  Use childhood passions such as:  twirl all the way to the playground then hop back like frogs.  Play red light green light or Come over Red Rover or Marco Polo for land. (Find more ideas here soon).  

  • Concerns about children missing important instructional time is mute, If, one considers that children need body (neurological) systems that are primed and available for learning. By priming first, there is actually more value in shorter “attuned” times working on academics, than longer stretches where children are only mildly attentive.
  • High energy activity won't cause the students to be disruptive when they return to class if they understand they will lose it if they act out after.  Children are smart and wired to survive.  There is something called a gating response that means our bodies are hard wired to attend to the most important mechanism for survival in the moment.  This includes a child's direct need to develop, in the moment.  What this means is that children will not only desire the movement breaks but will crave it.  So much that they will find the secondary ability to calm down and focus upon returning to class knowing that this is how they will be able to continue to receive the movement breaks.  
  • End the high energy time with a lower energy activity that includes proprioceptive input:  walk back to class on all fours like an elephant.  Have children partner up and “wheel barrel” race back to class.  Think back to your childhood and remember what was active and fun.  Try it with the kids.  

4.  No money in the budget?  Make the problem part of the solution.  Financial constraints are a very real issue that most teachers and other school staff (OT’s) face today..  With budget’s slashed across the U.S., teachers hardly have money for pencils and paper.  Occupational Therapist’s and other specialists are in the same boat, often using their own money and time to purchase or make supplies.  

  • Use the permaculture principle "make the problem part of the solution" by really tapping into the natural developmental offerings of the outdoors. 
  • Make sensory kits as a whole class activity.  Allow more flexible seating.  Allow children the option of standing, kneeling or sitting at their desks.  Allow children to sit or lay on the floor whenever possible.  Although there is always the exception, most children will be more available to learn when they are feeding their bodies the sensory input they need to stay alert and regulated.  
  • Many teachers have “wish lists” they give to parents.  This is a slippery slope, but with budgets so small what can we do but reach out?  There are often at least a handful of parents willing to chip in, purchase items or facilitate raising the money to do so.  Use this wish list as another opportunity to educate parents about the need for movement and let them know you need their support to change this.  

  5.  Create mystery.  Mystery is another way to alert the system.  We are hard wired for mystery.  Creating mystery can look like:

  • Create a game of camouflage in the class each week.  Choose 3 new objects, pictures, or other items to “hide” in plain site each day.  Have the children secretly write where the object is and place in a jar.  Have a “nature break” reward for all those who participated.  At the end of the week play the game in reverse.  Have the children camouflage the items and the teacher has to find them.  You many need to have another teacher team up with you so that there can always be a teacher in the room while the children are hiding the items.  
  • Make mystery a whole school activity.  If there is a school mascot (for example a panda), get a stuffed panda and hide it in the school yard somewhere.  Make it an awareness game that children will naturally want to find the panda.  Give them movement breaks that include "5 minutes to find the panda".  
  • Use your imagination:  that's how you became a teacher in the first place!  You imagined a better world.  

It's no longer about just being the change, it's about doing the change!

1.  As retrieved from:  Changes in American Children’s Time, 1997-2003

http://www.popcenter.umd.edu/mprc-associates/hofferth/hofferth-bibliography/articlereference.2009-11-17.9115064020

2.  Rules. Pear Press 2008, John Medina
3.  Coyote's Guide to Connecting Kids with Nature.  Owlink Media, 2008, Jon Young, Ellen Haas, Evan McGown

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