In the final article exploring sensory support for emotional regulation, Sensory Engagement Specialist and Sensory Projects founder, Joanna Grace, explores how gentle exercise can support brain development for children of all abilities. This article is based on one of Joanna’s free leaflet guides, more can be found at: www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk/guides
What is neurogenesis?
Neurogenesis is the birth of neurons in the brain. Neurons are the building blocks of the brain, so having them in plentiful supply is wonderful for promoting cognitive growth and learning.
Sustained, gentle-aerobic exercise has been shown to increase neurogenesis, and in so doing, improve brain function and prevent cognitive decline. So, great for growing minds and older minds alike. If we keep moving, we support our children’s learning and stop our own brains from growing foggy!
We always knew there was a reason it was important to let the children run around and let off steam; it is not to get it out of the way so they can get on with their learning, it actively helps them to learn.
Two challenges to neurogenesis
You are likely to face two challenges to neurogenesis-promoting activity in your setting:
- Children whose fitness levels discourage them from sustaining exercise.
- Children with physical disabilities for whom running around is a bigger challenge or simply not an option at all.
Let’s address these in order:
In the modern world we are witnessing a rise in child and adult obesity. A child who gets out of breath quickly is unlikely to want to play a game like chase, as ultimately, they’re going to fail. You may witness this child performing short bursts of activity, e.g. sprinting across to grab a toy or peer, but you are unlikely to see them maintaining activity. If, in a playground situation, your choice is between playing and not playing chase, and the chase on offer requires a sustained level of high activity, chances are you will choose not to play.
As these children opt out of the high-energy games typically played by able-bodied children, they set themselves on a back foot, both with their physical health and also with their opportunities to promote neurogenesis.
The good news is, neurogenesis does not require us to sprint, or leap, or do burpees (if you don’t know what a burpee is, count yourself lucky). It requires sustained, gentle-aerobic exercise. This means you can keep it up (sustained), and that is a level that is bespoke to you. For example, for some it might be walking, whereas for others, it might be jogging, and it is continuous (aerobic), so it is not a turn-taking game such as a relay.
Ideal games and activities for neurogenesis:
- Hunting games that require continuous movement, e.g. Easter egg hunt.
- Circle games in which the children on the outside of the circle move around and sing, e.g. Ring-a-ring-a-roses.
- A good stomp through nature.
- Walk and talk – not all stories have to be told seated.
- Dancing – hold a brain disco!
To support someone with a different level of physical ability, for example someone who uses a wheelchair, begin by identifying their capacity for movement. So if all they can move is their arms, then you know their neurogenesis work out is going to involve their arms. Consider alternative forms of exercise. For example, did you know that singing actually counts as a workout? Even if they cannot complete a full activity, encourage them to think about doing it. So, for example, you may have a child who has broken a leg and is not allowed to run, but they can still make the arm movements associated with running and imagine the rest. Studies have shown, amazingly, that imagining ourselves exercising burns slightly more calories than thinking about something else. So when you are sat at home wondering whether it is worth leaving the sofa to go to the gym, imagine yourself on the running machine and you’re half way there…well, not really half way there, but a nudge closer than a total couch potato!
Once you have identified their capacity, you are simply looking for ways to encourage them to sustain the movements they are able to make. Silly songs and daft improvised games are easy ways to do this. What about associating movements with particular words in a story and having the children perform these movements as the words crop up in the story, and then reading the story again slightly faster, and again, until you all fall into jumbled silliness?
Movement is not a break from learning, it is a fuel for the brain and does wonders for everyone’s wellbeing. Find something you love and get active!
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.