Learning With All Sides of the Brain: Brain Gym Cross Crawl

A young child runs joyfully along the sidewalk in a cross body movement pattern

At Treehouse Learning, we support whole-person development and integration through intentional, respectful, and responsive experiences. We are a community of co-learners and believe that all learning optimally and spontaneously occurs in the context of whole-brain integration and activation, and when our thoughts, feelings, and actions, corresponding to our minds, hearts, and bodies, are also in whole-person integration. For the children in our care, ranging from infant through kindergarten, we seek to nourish and develop the whole person. This notion often appears in conflict with our culturally driven focus on academic and cognitive or intellectual development, frequently at the expense of our interconnected social-emotional learning and physical development and well-being. In an early childhood educational setting like Treehouse Learning, our whole brain, whole person approach helps the “whole child / whole person” flourish as well as supports the foundational skills necessary for all future academic and experiential learning.

Whole Brain, Whole Person approach to all development

Our whole-brain approach at Treehouse Learning means that we embody intentional movements to organize and activate all parts of the brain. Our “whole-brain engagement is described here for simplicity and explained as the Triune Brain Theory, or 3 parts of our brain theory (which is a far more complicated framework- our brains are incredibly complex!).  To keep today’s blog post to the 100-level, we will further simplify brains into two major vertical regions. Our “Downstairs Lizard Brain” is wired for survival and characterized by reflexive instincts or automatic functions, and our higher-order “Upstairs Wizard brain” is where we engage our capacity for creative innovation, problem-solving, critical thinking, and empathy. Optimal learning and development occur when all parts of the brain are engaged. While higher-order thinking only can occur in the Upstairs region, the Wizard Brain area, all parts of the human brain are incredible and critical to the fullest expression of humanity.

Our whole-person approach encompasses the integration of our thoughts/brains, our feelings/emotions/heart, and our actions/behaviors/bodies. All of these components make us fully human, and we believe we live most fully as living things when we embrace the joys and sorrows, highs and lows, and the full range, breadth, and depth of the human experience. At Treehouse Learning, we invite our entire community into whole-brain, whole-person living.

Big Circle: We begin our day with the community-building ritual of Big Circle, where we join together for music, movement, and joyful learning experiences. We use the intentional movements of our bodies to activate our whole brains, attune to our emotional landscape and actively shape the way we think, organize our thoughts, and actually feel within our bodies. Reciprocally, our thoughts and feelings impact the way we move in the world via our bodies, whether through our behaviors and actions, the ways we carry ourselves and move in space, or the memories, whether joyful or traumatic, stored in our bodies and imprinted on our brains.

Beginning our day by finding our PACE

At Treehouse Learning, we begin our day at Big Circle with the physiological process encapsulated in the movement and song we call PACE, an acronym in reverse order, for Energetic, Clear, Active, and Positive. First, we sip water to get energy. Second, we rub our Brain Buttons to find clarity and ease in our visual tracking, shifting from side to side and between focused and ambient attention, metaphorically practicing looking around the entire forest, as well as seeing both the forest AND the trees. Then, we move into Cross Crawl, where we activate and integrate the cross-lateral midlines of our brains and bodies, and finally end with Hook Ups, where we anchor in calm, pleasant, and positive space

Cross Crawl for Large Body Movements

The Cross Crawl is characterized by exaggerated, cross-body movements, similar to the action of a child skipping and swinging opposite hands and feet. In Cross Crawl, the opposite hand or elbow crosses the vertical midline to connect with the opposite knee, foot, or side of the body. The large body, midline-crossing movements engage the large muscle groups of the hips, core, and shoulders. The exaggerated cross-body motion builds stability, balance, structural integrity, and coordination that supports small-motor skills that will eventually follow, such as reading and writing, which cross the body’s vertical midline. The cognitive functions supported by Cross Crawl include spatial awareness, using both eyes together, and crossing the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile midlines. It improves right-left coordination, supports ease of movement, enhances breathing and stamina, and improves listening and attention.

In a growing child, the integration of movements on opposite sides of the body naturally occurs through activities such as crawling, walking, and running. In fact, in a least-restrictive environment where children are given minimally-restrictive access and maximum encouragement to freely move their bodies, children innately engage in cross-crawl movements, especially outdoors. Neuroscience teaches us that the contralateral movements work by activating the brain’s speech and language centers (within the right and left hemispheres of the brain), and is effective because it engages the entire body in a consistent pattern of whole-body movement. An indigenous perspective of whole-person wellbeing also confirms that patterns of movement, land, and community positively intersect in the realm of children’s playful learning experiences. 

Cross-body movements are necessary for optimal brain activation and organization because they engage the brain in a space of integrated learning patterns where both the left and right hemispheres of the brain are engaged, bilaterally. Here a learner is able to access both the logical and symbolic thought centers of the brain. The abstract, body-focused invitation of bi-hemispheric movement creates neural pathways for imaginative, cognitive, and linguistic processes. Cross-lateral movements are foundational for all other learning to occur in a balanced, integrated state. 

Cross-Body Movements to Activate the Brain: in action

Cross Crawl is an incredibly versatile tool that can be adapted in all sorts of ways. Unrestricted outdoor play for children tends to naturally lead to cross-body integration. Babies on their backs can “bicycle” their opposite hands/feet with a responsive caregiver during diaper changes or other caregiving routines like dressing or climbing. Cross Crawl may be done sitting, laying down pretending to swim, eyes closed or open, etc. Because it’s such a “danceable” and rhythmic activity, it’s also easily embedded in many adult-focused exercise routines, in common forms such as mountain climbers, ladders, floor sprints, etc. Survivors of traumatic brain injuries ideally have the opportunity to intentionally rewire their brains through cross-body integration activities as well. For all of these beneficial purposes, we include Cross Crawl as part of PACE at Treehouse Learning, and invite Cross Crawl movement patterns into all sorts of movement and play patterns throughout our day. The more of our brains we activate and engage, the better the outcomes are available for us and those around us, in all areas of our lives. In fact, the whole planet tends to benefit from whole brain, whole person integration!

Whole Brain activation leads to more expansive, creative thinking where the world wins

Quite simply, the more we use our entire brains, and the full capacity of our entire Selves as living beings, the better the outcome for ourselves, other human beings, living things generally, and the planet. Life is better when we live as fully integrated humans, with thoughts from our brains, emotions from our hearts, and movement out of our bodies. 

There is no actual way to avoid the rollercoaster of human existence or suffering. We live in a world where systems of domination have often exacerbated suffering for many. When we live out of fear, even the fear of scarcity, or not having enough, we tend to shift into a fixed mindset, a win-lose set of binary possibilities where we tend to make non-beneficial decisions. Our brainstem, which is primed to respond quickly to any perceived danger in order to keep us alive is incredible at keeping us alive! But when we’re dominated by reactions out of our brainstem and are highly activated and mobilized into either Fight/Flight mode, or immobilized through fainting or freezing, we aren’t able to access our entire integrated brains where we can problem-solve in addition to experiencing empathy, compassion, and creativity. When our whole brains are integrated and we’re also individually integrated into our whole Selves, we access an expansive, infinite, and creative world of possibilities that tend to be win-win-wins.

In the late ’70s, the drawing book, “Drawing from the Right Side of The Brain,” challenged the notion that drawing skills were limited and finite- either you could draw or you couldn’t. The book guides the application of brain-integration techniques into pencil sketching and perspective-taking activities to engage both sides of the brain, and the results are astonishing

In fact, the opportunity to integrate and activate all parts of the brain to access ease and joy in optimal learning is the soil out of which resilience and a growth-mindset flourishes and grow. Literally, the intentional movements of our bodies can open up access to whole-brain living.

At Treehouse Learning, we begin our day in movement at Big Circle with intention and purpose. It is a social setting that supports direct learning opportunities in language, rhythm, and math. It also is an opportunity to optimize our brains for learning through the integration of our brains, hearts, and bodies by incorporating the intentional movements of Brain Gym into our Big Circle songs themselves, including the brain-activating ritual of PACE. Through our intentional movement-based integration, our nervous system is regulated, our emotional landscape is stable and joyful, and all the parts of our brain are switched on and ready to learn.

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