Brain Gym is a set of 26 movement exercises designed to improve cognitive function in children and adults. The exercises were developed in the 1980s by educator Paul E. Dennison, PhD, and his partner, Gail E. Dennison, an artist and movement educator. The Dennisons operate the Educational Kinesiology Foundation, which licenses curricula and resources based on Brain Gym, and trains parents, therapists, and educators on how best to implement them.
According to the foundation’s website, the Brain Gym movements “recall the movements naturally done during the first years of life when learning to coordinate the eyes, ears, hands, and whole body.” Brain Gym has been widely used in Great Britain’s school system and currently has licensed faculty in the US, Canada, Indonesia, China, Spain, and other countries.
The Educational Kinesiology Foundation collects reports of the parents, therapists, and educators who say they’ve seen marked improvement in students and patients who’ve implemented the exercises. “Even though it is not clear yet ‘why’ these movements work so well,” it says, “they often bring about dramatic improvements.”
Brain Gym exercises enhance concentration and focus, academic functioning (including reading, math and test-taking skills), physical coordination, interpersonal skills, and memory. As such, they’ve been effective for the treatment of autism, processing disorders and traumatic brain injury.
Neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford, PhD, writes in Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, “Brain Gym facilitates each step of the process by waking up the mind/body system, and bringing it to learning readiness.”
Therapists report that Brain Gym is effective with autistic patients inhibiting tantrums. On the website Epidemic Answers, Cecilia K. Freeman, MEd and Certified Brain Gym Consultant writes of effectively treating children with autism, cerebral palsy, ADD, ADHD, PDD-NOS, Angelman’s Syndrome, speech impairment, blindness, and deafness with Brain Gym exercises. She’s authored I Am the Child: Using Brain Gym with Children Who Have Special Needs, a book that offers detailed profiles of the treatment of eleven children.
How It Works
The foundation of Brain Gym is the belief that, since learning isn’t isolated in one part of the brain, exercises that integrate the brain’s regions will enhance cognitive function. Brain Gym exercises are drawn from from a variety of disciplines, including neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), acupuncture, applied kinesiology, and yoga, as well as neurology and psychology.
The exercises are built around the principles of “focusing,” “centering,” and “laterality.” They are designed to build neural pathways across brain hemispheres, which are said to reduce stress and negative emotions as well as improve intelligence and coordination. Many require movements that involve “crossing the midline” to improve cross-lateral integration. The Dennisons also believe that abnormal psychomotor patterning, which refers to the order of acquiring motor skills, can create cognitive challenges and designed exercises to “fill in the gaps” of motor skills that may have been skipped, such as infants who skip the crawling phase.
Lazy 8 is an exercise that asks the student to draw the infinity sign in the air over and over, helping to create focus and physical integration. Cross Crawls is another popular Brain Gym exercise which asks the student to bring their opposite elbow and knee together as they march, another example of crossing the midline and providing the motor integration that children who skipped crawling may have missed.
To create the best physical and mental conditions for doing the exercises, the Dennisons recommend that students drink water and set a positive goal for their work session beforehand.
On her website, Learning Abled Kids, parent Sandra Cook writes how she uses the Brain Gym Teacher’s Manual working with her children:
“When I set up my boy’s programs, I used the book to determine which exercises would be best for each son. Then I set up a routine using the exercises that son needed. In our household, the Brain Gym was used mostly as a tool for overcoming physical “awkwardness.” It was also used to help an ADHD mind focus on learning tasks long enough to complete them. As with any physical therapy program, progress is slow. However, these days my ADHD child has NO problem focusing on a lesson long enough to get it done. My formerly physically uncoordinated child no longer has that problem.”
You can also watch traumatic brain injury coach Nathalie Kelly and Dr. Hannaford work through the Brain Gym exercises on this video.
Things to Consider
Brain Gym was designed to be an integral part of a comprehensive treatment plan. As such, progress can be slow and requires consistent commitment. Because of its flexibility, exercises and session times can be adjusted to a child’s needs. Integrated Learning Strategies writes in its overview of Brian Gym, “Each activity should be completed at the child’s pace and for as long as the child needs to ensure the exercise is effective.”