A New Lens on Learning

Summer is a time for relaxing, something many of us look forward to all year long.  In more typical summers we are heading to vacation, camp, pools and hopefully getting lots of down time. In these more typical summers many parents worry about their children maintaining the skills they learned during the school year and want to know what they can do to help with this maintenance. However, this year feels different. In addition to the worry about summer regression, there is the worry about the impact of 3+ months of virtual learning. Every parent wants their child to succeed and to not “fall behind”. While we don’t have all the answers, we do know a lot about the brain, how it learns and what you can do to help. Learning in a classroom is a very important part of childhood development, but rest assured there are so many other ways for your child’s brain to learn. It is this “brain learning” that  helps set your child up for even greater success when it is time to resume academics. 

First, a very quick overview of our brain based on Daniel Siegel’s work in the book “The Whole- Brain Child”. We have a left and right hemisphere of our brain. Your left brain is logical and literal; whereas your right brain is emotional and based on experiences. You also have an upstairs and downstairs brain. Your upstairs brain is about organization and planning and your downstairs brain is based more on primitive emotions. We need our brains to be integrated, left to right and up and down for us to function as our highest selves. It is important to note that our age will determine to what extent we can access all the parts of our brain. In the book, Daniel Siegel goes into great detail about different strategies one can use to help target integration. It is an excellent read and one I definitely recommend on your summer reading list. As occupational therapists we are constantly working on integration. We look at it more in terms of sensory integration, but the underlying concept remains the same. We want all the parts of us working together for us to have the best output possible. 

Which brings us to movement. Movement is your number one strategy in these summer months. I have had many clients come to therapy less and even entirely stop therapy in the summer to go to summer camp. There is always a concern for regression and loss of skills (and in many cases this is a valid concern, your therapist will always recommend what is best for your particular case). However, many times I have had clients go to camp all summer long and come back MORE INTEGRATED than when I was with them in the center weekly. It feels like everything we worked on all year long just clicked into place. Why does this happen? Movement, brain integration, and the pressure is off. I am going to break each of these main points down in the following paragraphs. 

Movement is the least expensive and most effective form of therapy (any type of therapy) for all of us, kids and parents alike. When you move your body whether you go for a walk, a swim, spend time on a swing, climb a rock wall, do animal walks, the list is endless… When you do these things you are encouraging your body to release dopamine and serotonin. Neurochemicals that legitimately help your body feel good. And not just feel good so you can have a good time, but feel good enough so you can be ready, willing and able to participate in your environment. For our kids this means school. And if you think about school, it’s not a ton of movement. Physical education happens often, as well as recess and many, many schools and teachers are working hard to integrate movement, yoga and mindfulness into their daily schedules. But still, there is a lot of sitting. That is just how it goes to get done all of the things that need to be accomplished in a day. This is the beauty of summer, more moving, more feel good chemicals. This will literally create a foundation for children to return to school, in whatever form it is offered, with a brain and body that is ready and able to learn. 

To make this point even more clear I am going to give you a hypothetical situation that I have made up. Take a 3rd grade student, we will call him Jack. Jack has trouble staying organized in school, he often shoves his paper in his backpack and desk aimlessly and can’t find assignments. He forgets to write things down in his planner, saying he prefers to remember it in his head (which isn’t working very well). His teachers say that he knows the answers to test and class questions but often gets distracted and can’t get the information down on paper. Sound familiar? Jack’s parents have tried checklists, reward systems and punishment. Everything works for a short period of time and then Jack slides back to his old ways. Jack’s brain is not integrated, in any which direction, and it is frustrating to all parties involved. With all the respect in the world for schools, keeping Jack sitting in a classroom working on these skills isn’t going to change a thing. But it’s summer now, so Jack and his family get a little break from all of these stressors. His parents are having him read over the summer and do some word searches and crossword puzzles as his teacher and school OT recommended. But they want to do more to help their son. Jack and his dad decide to build a garden together. Jack’s dad includes him in the planning process (discussing if they are going to use garden boxes or plant directly in the ground). Together they measure to build garden boxes, they go to the local nursery and hardware store to get supplies (they need to make lists before they go and check things off as they get them). Jack is carrying bags of potting soil, getting on his knees to dig and learning to grade his pressure when hammering together the pieces of wood for the boxes or placing seeds. Jack and his dad carefully read up on how to plant different varieties of vegetables and herbs. How far apart seeds need to be, how much sunlight each plant can tolerate. At the dinner table Jack and his dad discuss how they are going to keep their garden safe from the endless onslaught of chipmunks and squirrels. Sorting and weighing the pros and cons of various options. Every morning Jack wakes up and waters his garden, starting his day with a small touch of movement and sunshine. Can you see the connection here?  Jack is working on organization, planning and accountability without ever opening a textbook. What is inside of those textbooks is very important, I am in no way negating that. But the summer provides a world of opportunity to work on our foundational skills, to support all the parts of our brain that we need working together, in order to truly learn in school. This is an example for an older child, but there are endless and endless examples of ways to do this. Your OT’s are highly trained to do exactly what I just discussed but with precise detail for your particular case. 

How exactly does one’s brain integrate and what does that exactly mean? Our brains are made up of neurons (I am grossly oversimplifying here) and they fire to activate the different parts of our brain as necessary. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Meaning in the future when one neuron is activated it will activate it’s cohort. Why does this matter? Because we can help control this and the way we do that is movement. If you want the left and right side of your brain to work together, your logical thinking mind and your creative, emotional mind (which is a really good thing when your teacher asks you to write a personal narrative essay), you need to help them communicate with each other. On a movement level this means using your right and left side of your body together. In OT sessions we like to come up with fancy obstacle courses and exercises (think cross crawls) to do this. Think about riding a bike, you definitely need your left and right side working together to do that successfully. And what if you went on a bike ride every sunny morning this summer with your child, let’s say about 45 days of riding a bike for 45 minutes give or take. How many opportunities would that yield for your child’s left and right brain to work together and communicate, about 45 hours. That is more than enough to change a person’s brain, how amazing is that! Your child will still need to practice putting their thoughts in a graphic organizer, writing a rough draft, and editing to get to that personal narrative. That is precisely where the academic part comes in, but by giving your child the movement component you will literally be preparing their brain to be better able to learn. Their left and right side will know how to talk to each other automatically, so when it comes time to write they can focus on just that part. That is how much power movement has. 

And the last piece I want to touch on is “taking the pressure off”. School is hard, it’s hard for kids in so many different ways. From academics, to social worries, to lack of sleep because we are getting up early. It’s an incredibly rewarding yet intense experience. We as adults feel it too, we all look forward to our school breaks and weekends to recover. I would argue that these past few months have been even more intense, we may be in our homes but the pressure has felt turned up for many of us. Our kids, just like us, need this break, this decompression. It doesn’t mean you throw every part of school out of the window, but we strongly encourage allowing your child to get the break they need. We all know how good it feels to get a full night’s sleep. How much better able we are to stay calm when our kids test our patience, complete our tasks for work and be nice to our spouses, when our cups are filled versus empty. It is no different for our kids. They are working tremendously hard in a school year. If your child is struggling with academics, think about how hard it is to struggle with something everyday for an entire school year. Let their brains breath, give them some movement and some fresh air. 

We hope this piece has helped calm your worries about your child being behind from virtual learning or even just summer break. You’re doing a great job, get your kids outside and let them fill their cups with movement all summer long for a more productive September. We have been posting tons and tons of movement ideas on both Facebook and Instagram. You can also check our last newsletters for some great movement ideas. If you want some specific suggestions for your concerns and your child, reach out to us! 

Written by Jessica Addeo

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