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Body mind connection in early childhood education

Body mind connection in early childhood education

March 21, 2017 | By Ron Spreeuwenberg
This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #36"Body mind connection in early childhood education”

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“

INTRO: This week we're in Episode 36 of the Preschool Podcast we learn about the role of the body-mind connection in early-years, with Rae Pica, advocate for movement-based teaching and host of the Bam Radio Network show StudentCentricity.

In our conversation we discuss the misconception that “sitting equals learning”. We also talk about the dire need to realign our teaching methods with scientific research that proves the positive relationship between physical experiences and how learning happens in children.

If you want to learn more about how you can incorporate movement to teach language, math and science in your classroom then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Rae, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

Rae PICA: Thank you, Ron. Thanks for inviting me.

SPREEUWENBERG: It's our pleasure to have you on the show. And you are an expert in mind-body connection in early-childhood education. And when we say that the mind and body are connected, what does that really mean?

PICA: Well it has different meanings, I suppose, in different contexts. But in early-childhood education so often – too often – maybe in education period in this country we behave as though children exist only from the neck up. And that the cognitive development and the brain are the all-mighty pieces of the child. And we ignore the fact that children have bodies. George Graham in his book Teaching Children Physical Education said that when he goes to schools to fight for the inclusion or the return of physical education into the curriculum he tells them, “Yeah, it would be great. Very cost effective to just bus the heads to school, that they do happen to be attached to other things.” And then this wonderful cartoon of headless children walking into the gym.

The idea has been that we must not think in the gym or move in the classroom. And it's really nonsense because more and more and more research is coming out showing that the body is involved in how the brain functions. The body and the mind are not two separate entities. Just when we think about moderate- to intense-level physical activity, where the heart is pumping a little, the heart is pumping a lot, we know that that feeds the brain with oxygen, glucose and water. And that's brain food. We would never think about not feeding our bodies for days, weeks and months at a time, but we do it all the time when we fail to get into our brains, when we fail to get moderate- to vigorous-level intensity physical activity.

And it's a tough message to get across. It all goes back to when that philosopher Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” And he started this mind-body dualism that for some crazy reason took hold and has lasted as long as it has. So that's the long answer.

SPREEUWENBERG: So mind-body connection is really a lot about getting physical and being active?

PICA: It really is. It's also about – especially for young children – physically experiencing concepts. Take the mathematics concepts of quantitative concepts: children need to get way up high and way down low to understand high and low. If we're talking about word comprehension they need to move lightly and strongly, and they need to act out words like “enormous” and “tiny” to really understand them. So there's also that aspect to it.

SPREEUWENBERG: Right. And I guess that's kind of to your point of using the physical activity in the body with intellectual activities, or what we might think to be more intellectual activities, as well as using the brain when doing physical.

PICA: Yeah.

SPREEUWENBERG: Cool. And so you talked a little bit about some of the research that's behind this topic. Is there any research that's more specific to early-childhood, or is it more for school age?

PICA: A lot of it is just across the board. Like John Radey’s book Spark, that's all about the science behind the mind-body connection and the role of physical activity in learning. But we know that young children in particular need to physically experience concepts to really understand them. Again with the quantitative concepts, if you look at a list of them – high and low, wide and narrow, strong, light and heavy – what better way is there for children to experience and come to understand those concepts then physically? You show them a word – for example, “slow” – it has only so much meaning to them, because it's just a collection of abstract symbols. But if they're moving slowly while also hearing slow music that would be best because there is research that shows the more senses we use in the learning process, the more information we retain.

And also movement is a preschooler's preferred mode of learning. So why on earth would we ever want to teach them in any way other than their preferred way of learning?

SPREEUWENBERG: It sounds like you feel there could be a lot more progress in this area. Have you seen any progress recently? Do you see a good trend, at least, where early-childhood programs are adopting more of this mentality?

PICA: The answer is yes and no. I see that more teachers, early-childhood professionals, are aware of the need for movement and active learning. I did a webinar last year that ended up being on this topic, using movement to explore literacy, math and science, and it was the number two webinar for that company in 2016. So that tells me that yes, teachers are looking for answers and they are understanding the importance of this.

On the other hand we have policy that is… you probably read the articles that kindergarten has become the new first grade. And it's just enormously frustrating that we have so much research out there and that the decision makers just completely ignore it. From what I understand we're doing all kinds of wonderful research in this country and people in other countries are using it and putting it into effect, which is just mindboggling. So we have early childhood professionals who, if they want to do what's developmentally appropriate for young children, have to fight the system now. That's why the answer is yes and no.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. So there's a bit of a misalignment between what research is saying we should be doing and what we're implementing in practice?

PICA: Yeah, absolutely. When you consider that the American Association For the Child's Right to Play – and if you can imagine we need such an association – they estimate that 40% of elementary schools in the United States have discontinued recess, have eliminated recess. And it's appalling. And there are states have built and continue to build elementary schools without playgrounds.

And this goes directly to the misconception that sitting equals learning, and that academics are all that matters, that children only exist from the neck up. It's enormously frustrating, and we have so much research. We have research that shows that individuals – but particularly children because of the stage of brain development – produce more when their efforts are distributed, as opposed to concentrated. In other words when they have breaks. And Finland is putting this brain research to use. They offer the children a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction, which is brilliant. And they're at the top of the heap in terms of literacy and numeracy.

SPREEUWENBERG: Now I usually prefer when our guests do most of the talking. But I'm going to come in with a point here because I think it's very relevant to this conversation, which is that one of the reasons we started the Preschool Podcast is we want to develop the future leaders of early-childhood education to speak up for what should be happening in early-childhood education. I just think this is a perfect example where we have a misalignment between research and practice. And the early-childhood educators, our audience out there, this is up to you guys to go out and make the change happen. Because if you know that the play-based learning is very important, and using the senses is very important to learning in early-childhood, we need to work together to push that through and make these things happen.

And on that note, Rae, what are some practical tips and strategies that you can provide to early-childhood educators to apply the mind-body connection in their centers or in their classrooms?

PICA: It's interesting. When I do site visits – any instructional coaching – and I sit there and it's all so obvious to me. And I think, “Oh, now is a perfect opportunity.” But I have to realize that it's obvious to me because I've been living this for 37 years. But acting out a story as opposed to just sitting and listening to it, acting out the different words, as I said. Word comprehension. And really it's acting out anything, physically experiencing anything. Whatever content area we're talking about, there are ways for the children to experience the concepts.

Now some of them are more readily obvious than others. If you take the content area of art, for example – shape and line and spatial relationships – those are all concepts that fall under the content area of art. And they align perfectly with movement. The children can make their bodies into different shapes; they can form diagonal and horizontal and vertical lines with their bodies. Any time they're moving through space, really, can be said that they're experiencing artistic concepts as well as physical ones.

But then you take a concept like color and it's not quite so easily recognized. But children are brilliant. They’re so imaginative. And if you ask them to show you with their bodies what the color yellow reminds them of, they'll show you different things. They’ll show you smiley-faces and pretend to be sunshine. If you ask them to show you what green reminds them of they'll show you grass or trees or frogs. All kinds of possibilities come to mind. Blue could be sad, it could be cold, it could be water, it could be the sky.

And my best advice, I think, is that we use that kind of divergent problem solving where there are lots of possible ways for the children to respond because so much of what they're going to get in their later education will be convergent problem solving, where they're the lead or expected to believe there's just one right answer. And certainly that's the case with standardized tests – one right answer or one bubble to fill in. And that just squashes creative and critical thinking skills.

But if you if there's lots of different ways for them to show you a round shape. Ask a group of 300 children to show you a crooked shape and you get 300 different responses, and that's beautiful. And if the teacher points out various responses they begin to understand that there is more than one way and that's that they're all right. Then the children begin to take more and more creative risks when they're given those kinds of opportunities.

So again, whether we're talking about art, language arts, math, music, science, social studies, there are going to be ways to physically experience all those concepts that fall under them if we just look for them. It's like if you're taking a photography course, suddenly you look at everything as a photograph. If you decided to take up writing short stories then everything you hear and see begins to seem like a possibility for a short story. If you just open the idea of active learning then you'll start to see those possibilities as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: Right. So just thinking in that mindset. Any activities you're planning to do, think about how you can apply that in a way that's going to involve the movement or the body.

PICA: Yeah, because sitting does not equal learning.

SPREEUWENBERG: It's interesting, too, because all of this conversation to me kind of comes back to a very basic principle of, “How does learning happen? How do children learn?” And the more and more I talk about this subject with experts like yourself the more I realize we're really only at the precipice of understanding that question.

PICA: Well the recent brainwave research has shown us so much that we didn't know before. I mean before you couldn't measure how many parts of the brain were lighting up when children are physically active. There is Dr. Charles Hillman [of the University of Illinois] – I have tweeted this image a couple of times, and I've used it many times – he shows a brain scan of children sitting. And it's just kind of sitting there. And then there's the scan right beside it of a brain after 20 minutes of walking, just 20 minutes of walking, and it's all lit up. It's just so much more lit up. We didn't have that before, and I'm really, really grateful that we have it all. I just wish some decision makers will start paying attention.

SPREEUWENBERG: It's funny because I was reading a book recently called The Happiness Equation [by Neil Pasricha]. And it's based on really great science and research. And he talks about a lot of the things that you can do to be happier. And one of them is going for a brisk, 20-minute walk. And it probably has a lot to do with the same thing, right? It's igniting things in your brain to get you reflecting and thinking.

PICA: Yeah. Eric Jensen has written a lot about learning with the body in mind and all that sort of thing. And he talks about neuro-epinephrine, and all of these chemicals that I can barely pronounce, that are activated with a short jaunt around the classroom and that sort of thing. And yet schools eliminate recess and physical education and they keep children sitting for longer and longer and longer periods because we have all these tests to pass and all these standards to meet. And it’s just so contrary to what the research is showing us.

SPREEUWENBERG: It's funny, too, because a lot of these topics are similar topics that we're talking about as adults – sitting in the office, we’ve got to get moving more. Taking those breaks and being healthy is going to activate the mind. So it's almost like a universal problem. But it's even that much more important for early-childhood education where learning and that fundamental early-years is so important.

PICA: Exactly. Because they're not they're not abstract thinkers yet. They’re concrete thinkers, so we have to give them concrete experiences. It's funny you mention the adults sitting in the office. We have new research showing how – I mean it's scary – the negative effect of sitting. Even if you work out every day, they say if you spend most of your days sitting there a whole host of health problems that can arise. And so I have stopped sliding the office chair over to the printer to try it on; now I stand up. And while we're talking, I'm walking. I've got the phone in my hand and I'm wearing a hole in the carpet here, just walking back and forth, because I think better when I'm moving. And I'm not alone in that.

SPREEUWENBERG: Totally. Now this is a really interesting topic that I feel like we really just scratched the surface. If people who are listening want to learn more about this topic where are some resources for them to go find work?

PICA: In terms of books I would absolutely recommend Eric Jensen’s book. He's brilliant, and he's really on top of the mind-body connection. I have written for Gryphon House: Jump Into Literacy, Jump Into Science, [and] Jump Into Math. And I wanted to prove that there were ways to explore all these concepts. And those are activity books, and I know early-childhood people are always glad to have those.

And I've just started a YouTube channel. It was very it was challenging to learn how to do all of that technological stuff, but having done it I'm really proud of myself. And having always said I've got a face for radio it was a little hard to put it on YouTube. But it's called “Active Learning With Ray”. And I think if you just went to YouTube and put Rae Pica in the search box... I've only got two videos up so far: an introduction to active learning, and then an introduction to using transitions to using movement for transitions, to make them less chaos-filled and more learning-filled. And another one will go up this week. I'm going to put one up every week, is the plan. And they will be activities that teachers can use with the children, active learning activities under different content areas.

SPREEUWENBERG: Wonderful. That sounds like a great resource.

PICA: Well, I'm hoping. The response when I mentioned it on Facebook was pretty welcoming. So that was good.

SPREEUWENBERG: Like you said, any time we have activities that we can use or get the creative juices flowing, too, right?

PICA: Yes! The hope is that my ideas will stimulate yours, the teachers. And like we said, start looking at things with active learning in mind.

SPREEUWENBERG: This has been a really great conversation, Rae. I'm personally very passionate about the idea of taking science and research and applying that in early-childhood education. And I think you really brought that to light here today in this conversation. So thanks so much for coming on the show.

PICA: Oh thank you. And early-childhood people need to be… they’re not policy wonks, they’re not always comfortable with policy. But they do need to tell their stories, and to as many people as will listen, because so many others think that they're just babysitters. So they have to let people know. And invite policymakers to their classrooms to see what active learning and developmentally appropriate practice look like. So that's my final word.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yes, and a good final word at that. Thanks, Rae.

PICA: Thank you, Ron.

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