Fidgety. Restless. Hyper. Slouching. Inattentive. Spacey.
There are lots of ways we describe children’s bodies in classroom environments – and all of them signal that the learning process is not supporting their body needs but fighting them. As a society, we wring our hands at the physical toll of sitting too long, leading to a whole industry of standing desks and treadmill work stations. And yet, typical classroom expectations require that children sit still for longer and longer periods of time, and evaluate them on their ability (and willingness) to do so.
This approach simply doesn’t make sense—and it misses critical educational opportunities. First, profoundly, research in the emerging field of “embodied learning” demonstrates that when sensory and motor inputs are incorporated into learning activities, it increases the number of neural networks involved in the learning process, thus increasing content retention. When we ask children to sit still and complete worksheets, we literally leave this powerful learning modality on the table.
Second, when we fail to meet a child’s body needs, it distracts attention, increases fatigue and even hogs critical brain power needed for higher order learning and social activities. Meanwhile, this sets up a conflict, forcing the child to choose between caring for their bodies and the adults—- when instead we should be using these opportunities to teach them how to monitor and advocate for their own needs in academic and future professional pursuits.
Finally, traditional, seated classroom environments miss the opportunity to teach children how to prepare their own brain for learning through their own sensory-motor system. This includes science-backed sensory strategies, developed in the field of occupational therapy, that can be used to trigger release of particular neurochemicals that physiologically improve the brain’s readiness for cognitive tasks critical to the learning process, like memory or emotional regulation, and readiness to engage in social settings as well. Similarly, regulated movement can be used to increase the sense of organization within the body and the mind, improving the readiness of children with ADHD and other executive function challenges to structure information to encode it, and to organize their own thoughts. These techniques, long employed in occupational therapy settings, benefit all children by giving them simple, actionable tools they can use to optimize their own learning experiences.
From the way we teach to the furniture in the room.
At Cajal Academy, we are re-engineering the classroom experience based on the premise that children’s bodies shouldn’t interfere with the learning process, they should facilitate it.
To do this, we are bringing embodied learning together with research-backed strategies developed in the field of occupational therapy for using the body to regulate and increase neural networks in the brain. This expertise is deeply embedded in our core academic classes and cross-disciplinary academic studio, which are co-taught by occupational and physical therapists who have expertise in using motor-sensory inputs to build the physiological nueral networks needed for learning. These therapists “choreograph” the learning experience, matching each academic task to the setting, style and kinesthetic approach best suited to maximize learning for that particular task.
We teach this science to the kids themselves—but what they really notice is that it’s just plain more fun. Boring spelling drills have been replaced with obstacle courses utilizing all of a child’s senses in the learning process, including their auditory, visual, proprioceptive (sense of how the body moves through space), vestibular (rotations of the body) and tactile (touch) senses. Map skills come to life with the child at the center of their own compass rose, physically engaging with each direction on various different visual planes and sculpting topographical maps to contextualize their understandings of early contacts between native and European peoples. Along the way, core content skills become visceral and are retained for longer.
These curricular strategies are paired with a multi-pronged approach to coaching each child to monitor, manage and advocate for their own distinct physiological, learning and emotional needs. We help them understand their challenges by teaching all kids the science behind human action and neurological diversity, building perspective and resilience for one’s own challenges while increasing empathy for those of others. We make this actionable and relatable through hands-on projects in Human 101, our afternoon enrichment program, targeting the musculature needed to address them through games and athletics in our physical education classes (taught by licensed physical therapists) and teaching research-backed strategies to regulate their minds for learning and social activities in our afternoon music class (taught by a licensed music therapist). One to one and small group therapeutic intensives are integrated into the day for those children requiring additional support to address sensory integration, fine or gross motor control, hypotonia, hypermobility and other occupational and/or physical therapy needs.
All of our learners also receive personalized coaching to become aware of their own sensory profile and how it affects their social and emotional decisions, along with strategies they can use to monitor, mitigate and self-advocate. In fact, we think that learning to ‘hear’ and respond to one’s own body needs is such a powerful tool for maximizing one’s learning, social and emotional potential that Body Sense is one of the six pillars of our core curriculum.
Along the way, by integrating the use of children’s bodies with the use of their minds within the classroom, we are modelling for our children the power of designing ‘human’ needs into academic and professional pursuits. When we as adults slouch in our chair, shoulders hunched over from hours staring at our phones, it doesn’t just drain the energy needed for sustained professional work, it distracts cognitive resources needed to excel. Thus our goal is to lay a foundation of healthy habits now that will help to sustain our children through the seated nature of our knowledge economy, and to realize the 21st century promise to design their own futures.