It’s important to get children to want to move for physical fitness. I often hear 4-year-olds saying “I’m tired” after one song/movement activity! How sad is that? Our sedentary society has turned children into non-physical beings. A natural partner to music is movement. Let’s explore its value from physical fitness to cognitive learning.

Movement is a nonverbal response for children who do not yet have language ability. The vestibular system (part of the ear related to balance/movement) must be activated for learning to take place. It carries auditory information from the ear to the brain and connects to all the muscles of the body. All learning in the first 15 months of life is centered on the vestibular system development. Disturbance to the vestibular system can cause learning difficulties. This highlights the importance of movement in the beginning years to strengthen the vestibular system and ready the brain for learning.

Don Campbell, author of “The Mozart Effect” and “The Mozart Effect for Children,” states, “Movement is an absolute necessity for toddlers, and music stimulates the best kinds of movement.” The brain works by electrical current thereby needing oxygen and water to function well. Movement helps to provide oxygen. When moving, the brain produces endorphins, which causes a feeling of energy and makes the brain more conducive to learning. Movement and rhythm stimulate the frontal lobes, important in language development, which grow between the ages of 2 to 6 with another growth spurt at around 22. 

A specific type of movement, cross lateral, is necessary for the brain to be ready to read. This movement can be done while dancing, moving to music, by tapping rhythm sticks and using different tapping patterns and by crawling. It is important for babies to crawl. Cross lateral movement enables the brain to go from the right side of your body, across the center to the other side, an ability necessary for reading because in order to read one must go from one side of the paper to the other.

Other ways to cross one’s midsection include dancing with scarves or walking like elephants, swaying arms like trunks from side to side. Exercising to music and doing cross crawls or windmills is great for the cardiovascular system and readies the brain for reading. It’s fun as well. These activities also help balance. A child who cannot stand on one foot probably can’t read because standing on one foot demonstrates the ability to balance and being able to balance is the result of a strong vestibular system, which is strongly related to language abilities. Greet that accomplishment with “Wow! Look at you standing on one foot!” This makes the child feel good, which gets them trying to do it more.

Movement/music also play an important role in math. Before children can understand numbers, they must have spatial-temporal reasoning, the ability to understand their body in time and space. This internalizes our ability to “get” numbers. Games like “In and Out the Windows” or “Blue Bird Through My Window” are fundamentally important because the whole body is involved in understanding how it moves, takes up space and interacts with other objects in space. Many early childhood programs are leaving games out because they’re feeling pressured to teach concepts. Stop! Don’t want to sound like oversimplification, but teachers need to step back from the demands and do the things they’ve always done because those things will prepare children for math.

Much of the research that supports the connection between music, math skills and spatial temporal reasoning began with the research of Drs. Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher at the University of California, Irvine. It involved testing the effect on spatial temporal reasoning after keyboard instruction for 3- and 4-year-olds. They noticed a heightened ability when Mozart’s music was played. The research was dubbed “The Mozart Effect.” Dr. Rauscher stated that naming it that has misled many people about the benefits of the research, leading some to think the research stated “Mozart makes you smarter.” That is not the case. It heightened abilities. This led to more research with other styles of music that found that children who take music lessons score up to 35 percent higher on spatial tasks. Their research is ongoing.

Dr. John Ratey of Harvard has done research that has shown children learn better and retain longer when moving while learning. Knowing all of this, we must take “action” and “move” to keep children’s minds and bodies fit. It is through awareness that people will begin to use what we know.

Maryann is founder of Music with Mar., Inc. She can be found at Palm Harbor Recreation Center every Tuesday and Wednesday at 10 a.m. teaching the Music with Mar classes. She can be reached by email at mar@musicwithmar.com. For daily brain facts, please like our Facebook page: Music with Mar., Inc., or visit the website www.musicwithmar.com.