Every school day, most St. Peter’s Lutheran School students will spend some time walking a balance beam, tossing bean bags and walking up stairs backward.

Most don’t realize that with all that physical activity, the purpose is really about training their brains to learn more effectively.

In September, school officials adopted the Minds-in-Motion program, a series of physical challenges performed as a sort of obstacle course.

How does it work?

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The activities, arranged in a maze, are designed to strengthen a brain’s vestibular system — which is the link between thinking and moving.

Sometimes referred to as the CPU processor for the brain, the system coordinates information from an individual’s inner ear, eyes, muscles and joints.

Developed by Candace Meyer, an Indiana University graduate, reading specialist and teacher, Minds-in-Motion sends kids through a series of obstacles and activity stations that are designed to train that portion of their brain to perform more effectively.

Seeing it in action

On a recent Thursday, a group of St. Peter’s kindergartners headed into their Minds-in-Motion session by lining up along a hallway wall and stepping sideways down the hall and back. The youngsters then skipped up and down the hall and finished up their hallway session by doing a strong arm push against the wall.

All three exercises are designed to strengthen the students’ reading skills.

The strong arm push, which looks like a runner’s stretch with the students’ arms pushed against the wall, develops fine motor skills for writing, said Jan Luken, who coordinates the program with school counselor Violet Dickerson.

The children then pair up, and hand in hand, walk up stairs backward to the Mind-in-Motion activity room, where more brain stimulation awaits, disguised as a challenging obstacle course. Climbing the stairs backward is about the brain processing time and space — organizing the space where movement is happening, Luken said.

In the room, students divide up among a variety of skills, from standing on moving balance boards to throwing bean bags in the air or rolling like a log down a gym mat and crawling back to the start like a soldier on his belly.

When a student struggles with rolling like a log, it corresponds to having difficulties learning to read, Luken said. An inability to roll without veering off the mat can indicate a brain disconnect between the eyes and the page. As students practice rolling and get better at it, their reading skills correspond and improve as well, she said.

“This is getting their brains fueled for the day,” Luken said. “Movement is brain food.”

In the maze, youngsters are supervised by Dickerson and Luken, and 12 St. Peter’s teachers who have seen the benefits from the program — and have been trained to work with students as well.

Strengthening eye muscles

One key area the Minds-in-Motion program highlights is eye tracking — a student’s ability to follow an object with the eyes.

One of the problems educators have noted is that this generation is one of the most “wired up” ever, spending much more time watching TV, playing video games, using tablets and computers than others before them.

All of this isn’t good for eyes or eye strength, Luken said.

To strengthen eye muscles, students are asked to throw a bean bag into the air, straight up, follow it and then catch it. Some add a couple of stomps of the feet in between catches.

“Learning to read, and reading fluently, takes whole body integration,” Luken said. “For example, crossing the midline, eye muscle strength as well as other integrated movements are very important when learning to read.”

While many of the benefits are academic, school officials have seen student behavior benefits as well.

“This has really helped some kids who are very anxious about school,” Luken said. The movements have the effect of balancing the brain, and calming any school jitters, she said.

The program has helped some shy students come out of their shell, becoming more confident in their movement, she said.

There is no wrong way to do any of the movements, although students are encouraged to follow the established instruction for each movement. Progress is noted and celebrated.

For example, teachers remind students to “walk like Frankenstein” on the balance beam, hands outstretched to the front. Stomping on a series of “Xs” taped on the floor is encouraged and praised.

Charting results

The hoped-for end result is that students improve their visual and hearing processing and their motor skills, which leads to more confidence in the classroom, Luken said.

Kindergarten through fourth-graders have Minds-in-Motion every day, while those in Grades 5 through 8 go through the maze periodically throughout the week. Activities are changed out periodically so students are constantly learning new brain skills when going through the maze.

All students were assessed before the program started and will be assessed again at the end of the school year to chart progress made through the program, Luken said. Writing samples were provided at the beginning of the year, and teachers are already seeing improvement in a matter of months, Luken said.

School officials have received feedback from parents, teachers and even a therapist reporting that students are writing more legibly, academic skills are improving and overall body awareness and control has improved.

“It’s as if we can see their brains changing in a positive way right before our eyes,” Dickerson said.

Pull Quote

“This is getting their brains fueled for the day … Movement is brain food.”

Jan Luken, St. Peter’s Lutheran School Mind-in-Motion coordinator

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.