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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

Herding Kittens with Brain Gym®

(Guest post by local Portland violin teacher Diane Lovejoy)

One day I was poking around Barnes & Noble looking for some materials to assist me in teaching young children. As a private violin teacher, I had recently been asked to start a new violin program at a preschool where I would teach about 12 kids ranging from 4 ½ to 5 ½. Yes, all at once! There were two or three willing parents that could help during that hour but they mostly assisted in keeping the children on task and learning from me. None were musicians. What an adventure; as it was sometimes like herding kittens, and trying to herd kittens is what led me to B&N that day.

I found a book called “Smart Moves; Why learning is not all in your head” by the neurobiologist and educator, Dr Carla Hannaford. It had cute pictures on the cover of children running around a playground and I looked through it, not knowing it would forever change my understanding of educating the mind and body together.

As I read, I learned about a movement education program called Brain Gym, which she referenced throughout the book, and I was so impressed with it that I eventually became a professionally licensed Brain Gym instructor.

Early on in my own training, I began to try out what I was learning with my violin class at the school, and I saw that they could focus better and settle into their playing more easily. They also enjoyed the movements, as they were fun and playful.

Although I only saw these kids twice a week for about 45 minutes, when it was concert time I was impressed with their ability to play their pieces from memory, wait patiently during a few announcements and generally behave in a focused and attentive manner.

In my private studio, one or more of these activities are often how lessons begin. The students who also do them during practice time at home see the ongoing benefits with an easier practice session and increased focus. I do teach a few children who have sensory processing challenges, and Brain Gym is an essential part of their goals toward achieving better access to skills and emotional balance.

With kids who have poor posture due to weak core muscles or other issues, I do a number of additional Brain Gym movements during their lessons and encourage home “play.” I believe many of these children who would otherwise quit stay in it longer. They are better able to process information and do physical tasks in coordinated ways with just a few simple movement activities done daily.

What about the parent?

It is sometimes a challenge to introduce Brain Gym to a Mom or Dad who has not yet learned the importance that movement has in growing the brain. They wonder if teaching a playful activity during what “should be” a serious violin lesson is a fair use of the time here. But when they observe the benefits it is soon respected. Sometimes the most reticent at first are the strongest supporters later, and “Cross Crawl”, Lazy Eights” “Thinking Caps” and The Elephant” become regular terms for them! Since Brain Gym movements reduce ineffective time spent in trying “harder” (i.e. getting more stressed) it actually saves time. It is soon obvious that other areas of work and play also become easier to engage in.

Even parents will begin to use some of the activities, especially the ones which dissipate stress. Every family is different, and my approach to adding Brain Gym and encouraging its use at home depends upon the child and parent involved.

All in all, starting a lesson with a few chosen readiness movements will take only a couple of minutes – yet dramatically improve the quality of any lesson. There’s great flexibility with it, and the child will soon know which ones help him or her best. I find also, that offering Brain Gym in the studio is a great way to teach self responsibility to a child who must learn to make her practice time more effective. (Perhaps we all need that!) The student can choose to be more “ready” to practice, and also choose to stop when they feel stuck and do something which unblocks that. I have seen that process contribute greatly to a child’s self confidence.

Many healthy neural connections are being made when Brain Gym movements are engaged, and often as time goes on the familiar movements are needed less or for shorter duration to stimulate the brain/body connections desired. Just starting one of them often has the balancing effect that is sought for practice or performing.

I can’t imagine running my studio anymore without such an easy to use tool that is so valuable for everyone!

If you are a teacher interested in learning how to incorporate Brian Gym into your studio, please call Diane Lovejoy at 503-430-8758.

Here’s to the well balanced musician!

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