This little autistic boy was a runner. Everywhere he went, he would run, in stores, museum, nature parks,...
It was the way he moved to interact with the environment. His bright eyes and a big smile on his face, it was simply his way of being happy in this world.
We would run together through the woods, learning about nature, looking at the different kind of leaves we could find, which one we could eat, touching the bark of trees, and learning about the basics of academics. For example running from one tree to another, it’s how we learned about math by counting animals’ toys along the trails in the woods, we learned about english by finding signs with letters and words , about shapes...
We would interact and communicate together by moving together. Though he found eye contact hard when engaged in this kind of activity, he would sometimes look at me straight in the eyes.
This way of interacting together by moving together released every pressure that could happen during a face to face interaction and ironically allowed the interaction to normalize.
This is how the physical movement of running allowed him to interact with the human and physical environment and to learn in and about his surroundings.
Running was his way of connecting with the environment. He was communicating with his body that this was how he needed to learn.
This way of interacting with the environment is not new. Our direct ancestors, Homo sapiens, were thought to have walked and ran between 10 and 20 kilometers every day all the while constantly encountering new food sources, predators and physical dangers.
Some scientists have suggested that endurance running was used for pursuing animals before spears, arrows, nets, and other hunting tools were invented. Later it may have been employed by hunters to exhaust their prey, allowing them to get close enough to use projectiles. This strategy is still used by the San Bushmen of southern Africa to hunt herd animals like the kudu antelope. So maybe it’s not so “ancestral” after all.
In our culture the human’s needs changed and running is more regarded as a form of exercise.
Each individual has his own way of moving. It reflects the way each person interacts with their environment, the way each person learns.
Children have a natural desire to move and explore, it’s their way of being “in touch with the world”. The way we move reflects the way our brain develops.
Some children likes to run, jump, dance, spin, walk,...Each one is demonstrating their preferred learning style.
Their intelligence and creativity develop as they move and explore the world, figuring out how things work.
The key is to follow and encourage their natural way of exploration and be on hand to help and encourage their natural way of interacting and learning in their environment.
Indeed science has shown that allowing and encouraging the child to move facilitates the neural connections in their brain that are involved in learning. It activates in particular the prefrontal cortex necessary for executive functions such as decision making and emotional control; and the hippocampus involved in memory formation. But it also activates cognitive networks between cerebellum and prefrontal cortex essential for learning. [See the science of learning]
So moving enhances learning and if we follow the movement of the child we would allow them to discover for themselves who they are, to develop self-awareness, and develop their independence. Self-esteem, self-confidence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, resilience, all these skills are learned this way.
Moving also increases communication. Recent studies also found that regular exercise helped improve the students overall quality of life – helping them engage in everyday social situations, reducing their anxiety and in turn improving their peers acceptance and inclusion.
This is partly possible because moving decreases the stress or the anxiety that children could feel in a regular classroom by reducing the activation of the amygdala responsible for the ”fight or flight” response that is especially very active in children with autism.
Indeed moving helps us in particular to release oxytocin, the feel-good, pleasure and communication hormone which facilitates stress regulation especially by reducing the activation of the amygdala in response to stressful stimuli and generally decreasing cortisol levels. [See the science of learning]
What if instead of being forced to sit still on a chair in a classroom, schools could be a place where children are free to move, to think, to be in harmony with their environment, with mentors on hand to help these explorations.
There are so many ways to provide the child with the movement that they need. These activities can either involve the child themselves physically moving (bouncing on the trampoline, swimming, running) or the child being placed stationary on a moving object (swing, horse, wheelbarrow). Any schools, playground, any back yard, any house will do.
It’s all about the connection between the body and the brain, the connections between the human body, its environment and the process of learning.
It’s the amazing power of our bodies that help us learn.