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Saturday / November 18

The Myth of the Brain/Body Dichotomy

This piece is adapted from What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Improving Education and Children’s Lives.

As you’d expect, when the Texas State School Board was voting whether to make daily physical education part of the curriculum, there was a lot of deliberation. Naturally, time and money are always at issue where a subject such as physical education is concerned. But in the case of this particular content area, there is another factor that creates debate: the myth of the brain/body dichotomy. It is precisely this myth that caused one board member to pronounce, “If we have daily PE the kids will be healthy but dumb!”

Such is the legacy of philosopher René Descarte, whose declaration, “I think, therefore I am,” was the beginning of mind/body dualism – the belief that the mind and body are separate entities. If it hadn’t had such an adverse effect on the lives and education of our children throughout the ages, I might find the concept and its acceptance fascinating. But rather than fascinate, it infuriates me. I’ve been beating my head against this particular wall for almost four decades – and I’m stymied as to why such a belief ever caught on, let alone why it has lasted as long as it has.

Granted, they didn’t have the research during Descarte’s time that we have today. But anyone who has ever taken a walk that sparked insight or an idea should be able to make the connection – as should anyone who finds himself thinking more clearly while pacing than while sitting or immediately following a run. And they sure had plenty of research that they could have referenced as they debated in Texas.

So why are we still behaving as if children consist of heads only? Or is it just that we wish they did in order to simplify things?

The fact that children have bodies may seem to complicate education, but consider the following:

  • Numerous studies have demonstrated that physically active students perform better in, and have better attitudes toward, school.
  • Movement is the young child’s preferred – and most effective – mode of learning, but we make them sit still regardless. Why do we insist on teaching children in any way other than via their preferred – and most effective – method?
  • Numerous studies suggest that because the child’s earliest learning is based on motor development so, too, is subsequent knowledge. In a BAM Radio interview, neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford explained, “If you look at brain development, it’s very, very clear that all of the areas of the brain are connected to the movement area. The very first areas of the brain are all directly around movement.”

Despite all of this, physical education and recess (and play in the early childhood classroom) are going the way of the dinosaurs. This sad fact is the direct result not only of mind/body dualism but also of the belief that the functions of the mind are superior to those of the body.

Imagine all of the lost potential through the years as children have been forced to learn in ways that aren’t developmentally appropriate for them and that even make them miserable.

Now, on the flip side, envision schools that recognize the mind/body connection. Imagine the enjoyment – for both students and teachers – of a classroom in which few struggle, and everyone looks forward to being there. Imagine more students completing school with a belief in their ability to succeed.

There are many, many arguments I could make to support the contention that the mind and body are dependent upon one another. But I’ll let you read the words of two others:

  • “Movement activates the neural wiring throughout the body, making the whole body the instrument of learning.”
  • “I lay it down as an educational axiom that in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies.”

The first quotation is from Carla Hannaford, a scientist and educator who has been studying the brain/body connection for decades. When she says it, I believe it.

Alfred North Whitehead penned the second sentiment in his book The Aims of Education and Other Essays. It pains me to know that those words were written in 1929 – and that more than eight decades later, they’re still being ignored.

What’s a Teacher to Do?

  • Regardless of what anybody else believes, embrace the mind/body connection yourself! Add “brain breaks” to your day by occasionally inviting students to stand and jog in place or to do the Cross Crawl, alternating opposite elbow to knee. Lead them in other activities that cross the body’s midline (it promotes communication of the brain’s hemispheres across the corpus callosum). Allow students to take a quick jaunt around the room. Play a quick game of Simon Says (without the elimination process). These kinds of activities change the chemistry of the brain, boosting norepinephrine and dopamine – the latter of which increases working memory.
  • Allow students to stretch or stand as needed.
  • Employ active learning in your classroom. For example, allow children to perform a “slow walk” or to jump “lightly” to better understand adjectives and adverbs. Invite students to physically demonstrate such verbs as stomp, pounce, stalk, or slither – or such adjectives as smooth, strong, gentle, or enormous – to ensure word comprehension is immediate and long-lasting. Challenge students to take on high, low, wide, and narrow body shapes to guarantee greater understanding of these quantitative concepts – and opposites. Ask children to move over, under, around, through, beside, and near objects in order to better grasp the meaning of these prepositions and geometry concepts.
  • Fight for the inclusion – or retention – of physical education and recess in your school. Never withhold recess as punishment!
  • I once heard a story about a school in which kindergarten teachers who permitted movement and play in the classroom were reprimanded by their administration. It’s my sincere hope that this is an extreme example, but I suspect it may not be. Should you find yourself in a similar situation the first step, as always, is to gather together the research, of which there is more and more, on the body’s role in learning, and take it to your administrators.

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Rae Pica has been an education consultant (www.raepica.com) specializing in the education of the whole child, children’s physical activity, and developmentally appropriate practice since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music, in its 5th edition; the award-winning Great Games for Young Children and Jump into Literacy; and the parenting book, A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity and Free Time Create a Successful Child. Rae is known for her lively and informative keynotes and trainings and has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. Rae also blogs for Huffington Post, is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences, and is cofounder of the BAM Radio Network (www.bamradionetwork.com), the world’s largest online education radio network, where she currently hosts Teacher’s Aid, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more.

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