September 19, 2012

Head, shoulders, knees, and toes – and brain!

In a recent NYTimes blog by respected wellness author Tara Parker-Pop e, the subject of how parents can help stimulate their child’s brain development was addressed. The blog, entitled “Simon Says Don’t Use Flashcards,” discussed the importance of play, and certain games in particular, for the growth and improvement of executive functioning skills, lengthened attention span, and overall academic success.

The learning from the research Parker-Pope references is very straightforward: by strengthening students’ executive function skills early in their academic careers (even in the preschool years), we can increase the likelihood that students will find success in school as they grow and mature. While most of our students at Engaging Minds are beyond the age range of children targeted in this article’s advice, the idea behind it remains a solid aspect of our approach to working with our students.

The blog mentions several familiar games that involve both direction-following and gross motor coordination, including Simon Says, Freeze Tag and Red Light/Green Light. Parker-Pope encourages not just the traditional playing of these games but the introduction of variations on their basic rules that require the children playing to follow increasingly more complex directions—for example:

“Simon says ‘Clap your hands.’”

“Now Simon says, ‘Clap your hands and turn around twice.’”

“Now clap your hands, turn around twice, wave your elbows in the air and jump up and down. (Whoops – I didn’t say ‘Simon says!)’”

Children playing the game must use their working memory (to build on their knowledge of the original game), utilize mental flexibility (to remember the basic rule, for example, of ‘Simon Says’ while paying attention to a series of complex instructions that may or may not result in their having to do something), and have patience and pay close attention (in order to maintain focus throughout the course of said series of instructions).

Educational author Ellen Galinsky is quoted in the blog, saying,

We tend to equate learning with the content of learning, with what information children have, rather than the how of learning. But focusing on the how of learning, on executive functions, gives you the skills to learn new information, which is why they tend to be so predictive of long-term success.

The process of learning—particularly in early education—is at least as important as the product. In other words, the HOW is just as important (if not more so) than the WHAT.

This is precisely why at Engaging Minds we use our students’ own schoolwork as a means of teaching HOW to approach their work overall. Yes, we do believe in using flashcards as a means of “active studying”; for some students this truly is the best way to learn basic math facts, vocabulary and spelling words or to study for a particular test (it is particularly helpful for some students to make their own cards). We also teach additional “active” means of engaging with work, not unlike those mentioned in Parker-Pope’s blog. Filling out a graphic organizer to organize a story idea, outlining a chapter from a history text, creating a quiz from science material and even completing a puzzle (such as Sudoku, that requires a degree of shifting focus and reassessment of information) can help students build their executive function skills and their confidence. And as the research quoted in Parker-Pope’s blog post shows, the more we do to help students strengthen these important skills early on in their academic careers, the more likely they are to achieve success in school and, arguably, beyond.

What can you do at home to help your children strengthen these important skills? We’d love to hear from you!