As I think back to the time when I was in kindergarten, I realize how much has changed. What was once naptime, coloring, painting, and running around the playground at recess, is now a place for reading, writing, sitting still in your chair and an introduction to math facts. Even preschool is now more focused on academics and many of them tailor their lesson plans to higher learning subjects that normally wouldn’t begin until kindergarten or first grade. While this push for greater academic achievement is good in theory, we are now seeing digression, even negative consequences in our students’ learning capability because their development is being pushed too far too fast. A child’s motor planning (jumping, bouncing running), auditory (retaining letters and sounds, listening to the teacher), and sensory input (behavior, focus, attention), and organizational skills used for math, in many cases is now suffering because we did not allow our children adequate time to develop these critical milestones used for helping the left and right sides of the brain work together.
One of my students in particular came to me with auditory processing issues because his parents couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t retaining the information he was learning in the classroom. “Ethan was struggling with auditory processing, including following directions and instructions from the teacher, tasks at home, and overall challenges with comprehension and the written word,” said Katie, Ethan’s mother.
Ethan’s parents are not alone. I talk with several parents on a daily basis who don’t know where to turn or how to help their children, only to find out that movement and play-based activities are the key, which is now lacking in schools today. It reminded me of a quote by Marva Collins, “Once children learn how to learn, nothing is going to narrow their mind. The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another.”
So what she is really saying is we need to find the right ways our children learn and implement those not only in the classroom, but tailor our learning techniques to the unique needs of the child. What works for one student doesn’t always work for another, especially those with ADHD, Autism, Sensory Processing Disorders and Dyslexia.
The Midline – Right and Left Brain
With Ethan, I knew we had to start from the beginning before we could even begin working on higher learning concepts like reading, comprehension, writing and math. The first step was to help him with brain-building exercises or purposeful movement activities to activate the right and left sides of the brain. Oftentimes parents think their kids are athletic or even wonder why hyperactive kids who move all the time aren’t better learners, but the key is using specific types of movement that connects the body with the brain. This is what we call crossing the midline.
Remember, the body is divided left to right, top to bottom, front to back. We need to help our kids participate in activities that will directly target each of these areas. Today, we are only focusing on exercises that will help improve your child’s right and left sides of the body so think of the body being cut in half from the top of your head to the bottom of your torso, just like an orange. The goal is to cross both your child’s legs and arms over that imaginary midline dividing their body from left from the right.
Crossing the Midline Activities – Right to Left
Here are some of the activities to try at home. You may think they are pretty easy and basic, but you’d be surprised at how many children cannot do these movement-type exercises. You may need to clear some room in your home, but you don’t need too much room to get started. You can also do these activities all year long, even during the winter months. All exercises should be repeated 10 times using alternating legs and arms for 20 minutes each day.
Elbow to Knee
For this exercise, you want your child to stand with their legs together and then have their right elbow touch their left knee. Switch from the left elbow to the right knee. Make sure your child crosses our imaginary midline of the body. We want to ensure the movement is precise and slow so children don’t complete the exercises too fast or too sloppy.Wrong Way or What to Watch for If your child has a tendency to put their right elbow to their right knee this is a red flag. It means they are struggling to cross one side of their body over the other, which could be why their right and left sides of the brain aren’t working together. If they can’t cross the midline, you will need to physically help them put their left elbow to their right knee or vice versa. Children with poor muscle tone, coordination and balance may also struggle with this activity so you may need to help them at first until they have built their strength.
Shoulder to Shoulder
This activity uses the arms as opposed to the legs. You can have your child stand shoulder width a part and then have them cross their right arm to their left shoulder and back again. Remember to help your child touch their right hand to their left shoulder and vice versa. Movement should be completed slowly and accurately.
Wrong Way or What to Watch for If your child’s right arm doesn’t make it over to the left shoulder (maybe they only got half way), they are not crossing the midline and will not get the full benefit of the exercise. You may also see your child swinging too far back or way over the midline. This also prevents them from getting the full benefit of the exercise.
This activity can be altered based on the child’s age. If the child is younger and smaller, you may want to begin them with toe touches first before doing leg extensions. If you have tiles in your floor or a square surface, help your child stand shoulder width apart in that small area. Have them put their hands on their hips and then extend their left leg over the right side of their body, crossing the midline. Then have them try the other leg over the other side of the body. Help your child with slow and accurate steps to ensure full benefits of the exercise.
Wrong Way or What to Watch for Your child may struggle with balance so you may have to help hold their waist to prevent them from falling over. If your child can’t stay within their square, you will have to remind them to stay in the selected area. Watch your child to ensure their shoulders are square during the movement and that they are not crossing their full body over to the other side. Only their legs should cross the midline.
Have your child stand shoulder width apart and have them take their right hand and touch their left toe, then bring the body back up to a standing position. Complete this activity using alternating arms and legs. Be sure to have them cross over the midline accurately and slowly.
Wrong Way or What to Watch for Your child may have trouble touching their toes because they don’t have the flexibility. It’s ok if they can’t make it all the way down to their foot, however, it’s important to complete the movement as best as they can, touching the ankle instead. It’s important for them to reach down as far as possible to complete the exercise.
These are just three simple exercises every parent can do with their children at home. It’s amazing how these activities, which seem easy to you and me, can help your child focus, attend, and learn better in the classroom. After helping Ethan with some of these exercises and even more play-based activities, his parents and teachers began seeing noticeable differences. “After Ethan began the movement-based program, we saw major improvements from the start. His teachers would frequently comment on how drastic the improvement was in class, addressing the decrease in the need for constant repeating of instructions and his overall reading accuracy expanded. The attitude at home was leaps and bounds different. Arguing declined and Ethan seemed to have a more meticulous memory for things previously ignored.” Ethan’s mother explained further how he was always an athletic kid, competing in competition soccer, and now his athletic ability has been enhanced and the relationship with his coach and teammates has improved as well. Now that Ethan is able to retain information, he is now ready for higher learning concepts. We are now working on his comprehension and fine tuning those reading skills. Just as a reminder, these are not the only activities your child should participate in. Keeping them active in soccer, dance, karate and playing on the playground also helps them build the core muscle needed for attention and focus. Watch for more articles to come on exercises for top to bottom, front to back. Ethan’s success reminds me of a quote once said by Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I.