“Movement is a child’s first language.” — Sally Goddard Blythe
“In Nature, we never repeat the same motion; in captivity (office, gym, commute, sports classroom), life is just repetitive-stress injury. No randomness.” — Nassim Taleb*
(*I added ‘classroom’ to Mr. Taleb’s aphorism, quoted above from his lovely little book, The Bed of Procrustes. I hope he doesn’t mind).
“Together, we would have designed the perfect combo.” — Jen Sinkler
We finished up a two-day MovNat workshop the first weekend in October with Clifton Harski, who is an amazing Instructor – patient, inspiring, and funny. Clifton was accompanied by the incomparable, equally funny, and very, very strong, Ms. Jen Sinkler. Jen has lots of deadlines and I have lots to say. A perfect fit. She suggested I write about our MovNat experience and she would submit it as a blog for Experience Life, where she is a Senior Editor. So, here we are.
I came across MovNat last Spring and contacted Clifton soon after, firmly set on bringing him here to Louisiana. MovNat, I decided after reading through every bit of information I could find about the movement, the history, and its founder, Erwan Le Corre, was the missing piece in the puzzle of my work.
I work with children. And pregnant women. And 50-year-old professionals. And 80-something-year-old retirees. And everything in between. I work with movement, with the moving body. We all move, even before birth and until death. When you work with movement, closely and personally, it means you work with people, not simply bodies. Movement patterns cannot be isolated from living patterns – behavior, thought processes, personality, actions. They reflect each other.
That movement patterns and exercise become so dysfunctional and joyless for so many people once they ‘grow up’ has always troubled me. Why do we start to relate to exercise as if it were a stranger we run into in the gym and have to strike up dreary conversation with three times a week or a task to be accomplished, instead of the fun, adventurous, and playful friend of our childhood? I’ve come up with many conclusions of my own over the years, but nothing truly cohesive.
Then, I discovered MovNat. I read up on their work and it all became clear: it’s natural movement in the rich, complex, random playground of Nature that grown-ups are missing – movement that is instinctual, intelligent, mindful, efficient, adaptable, useful, integrative, challenging, and, dare we mention the word, fun.
As supremely fit as each MovNat trainer is, as Tarzan-like and seemingly unattainable as Mr. Le Corre’s moves and physique, he is no elitist. MovNat training is open to anyone who wants to rediscover their natural movement skills, no matter what their age or athletic ability.
Thank goodness, I thought – somebody gets it (other than children). It’s all so elegantly, deceptively simple – we should never, ever stop playing (which is the code word a children’s movement teacher uses for natural, instinctual movement combined with exploration, wonder, curiosity, and imagination.
Yes, I know – MovNat is not “play,” even though it often looks and, at least for this beginner, feels like play – it is also serious business; a solid methodology for re-discovering natural movement skills and for training movement efficiency, adaptability, and mindfulness.
But bear with me, because play and movement are physiologically, cognitively, developmentally – in every way, actually – serious business, too. And as you will see, the presence or absence of play and exercise in our life never ceases to impact our physical and cognitive fitness, no matter what our age. And some kinds of play, movement and exercise – such as MovNat – may be even more beneficial than others.
My Leaping Days Are Over
She was a young mother, maybe early 30’s. Clearly worn out, possibly mildly depressed. Pale, hair unkempt, puffy, and soft all over. She had signed on with her youngest for one of my Mommy & Me classes. The kids were climbing, crawling, jumping, hopping, balancing, giggling and screaming happily as they made their way around a constantly shifting obstacle course (they like to move the stuff around or pull other bits in – it’s all part of the fun). I invited her to join in.
“My leaping days are over,” was her reply.
I wish I could say that she spoke wistfully or sadly, as if she actually missed those days. But it was more like she’d firmly shut a door and locked it behind her. I might has well have been asking her to sprout wings and fly to Italy for an espresso. Leaping was as foreign to her body and her brain, as inconceivable, as sprouting wings.
Why does this one woman weigh on my mind so much?
Because I see in her worn, pale face, her puffy body, her mental dullness and distraction, her emotional distance, her rounded shoulder girdle & spine, in her complete lack of touch with her body’s abilities nearly every adult I’ve ever worked with, to one degree or another.
I see in her none of the children I’ve worked with. If I were to encounter a 5-year-old child with these same characteristics, I’d suspect a disorder, depression or even abuse.
So, how do we get this way? We don’t start out this way. This is not the course our human system sets us on. Our “leaping days” are not designed to be over until we break a leg or quit breathing. And this has as much to do with what your brain requires for healthy function and active intelligence, as it has to do with your potential physical abilities.
The division between what we need as children and what is optimally healthy for us in terms of movement patterns and activities as adults, is artificial. It is a socio-cultural creation, not a natural one.
A Little Science, A Lot More Movement
Nature has a miraculous plan for us. Her only requirement is that we are able to move, freely and often. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?
It is if you live in an industrialized nation in the 21st century, because there’s no need to hold on to your diapers here. Just lie back, suck your pacifier, and watch the screen, bobble, or other hanging object conveniently located within your grasp, directly in your bilateral line of sight. Nope, no need to move at all. In fact, “Let’s add some more inserts and padding and immobilize that head so it doesn’t topple over to one side or the other…”
And it doesn’t stop there. Jolly jumpers, “exersaucers,” bumbo seats, strollers, car seats, etc. are all designed to keep children contained and passively entertained. Safety, of course, is also encoded in the purpose of these items, but how much safety is too much? This is a question we must ask ourselves. Because for healthy physical and cognitive development, children need room to move freely and a rich sensory world to move around in, i.e., outdoor and indoor environments that provide a wealth of natural opportunities for physical activity, multi-sensory stimulation, social interaction, exploration, and self-motivated learning.
The basic facts are these: from conception on, it is movement that generates, grows, and strengthens intricate neuronal pathways in our brain. Beginning with the fluid rocking and primitive reflexes fired in utero, to the intentional movement that integrates and overrides those reflexes, our neuronal growth keeps pace with our physical milestones. We roll, myelination occurs; rock, more myelination; reach, more; crawl, more; pull up and walk – watch out those neural messages are zinging!
When a child is inhibited or restricted in their range of motion, however, developmental movement patterns are often delayed, with a subsequent delay in corresponding cognitive skills. Free play and movement time in a rich, sensory environment is necessary for optimal physical, cognitive, and emotional development. The experts agree on this. Pick up any reputable child development book and it’s the same story.
Unfortunately, some time between Kindergarten and 2nd grade – a shift occurs; there is a significant decrease in movement/explorative/play-based learning and a significant increase in sitting and passive learning. This is caused, not by some timeline built into our biology (passivity and immobility being opposites of the behaviors we associate with healthy children). This shift is caused by the pressure of artificial forces, called “cultural values.”
All around us, recess is being shortened or even eliminated. Children are more rigorously flattened out to the same developmental time-line and boxed in behind desks, their natural need to move and explore, negated. In a sad mirroring of their immobilization during infancy, the ‘right’ answers are dangled in front of young students like the bobble toy and their movements are restricted by the lines of a desk and anti-movement rules (sit still, don’t fidget, raise your hand if you need to pee, etc), just like in their toddler “exersaucer”. Frankly, I’m surprised our education system doesn’t just keep growing kids in diapers with baby bottles at hand to eliminate any need to move at all and disturb the ‘learning process.’
These trends reinforce each other. Less movement and play, a controlled, static environment, and a diet of right answers = reduced ability to focus and to think creatively and critically, as well as a reduction in physical coordination and body awareness. Stress levels are on the rise among children, as are postural problems. If you keep up at all with health-related news in this country, then you know our children are not doing as well as they should be – there has been an appalling and unprecedented rise in health problems, obesity, and learning disorders among U.S. children in the past 40 years that shows no signs of abating.
Some parents may say, “But my child plays sports – we have those bases covered.” Sports are great, no doubt about it, and they teach many wonderful skills. However, a movement diet consisting only of organized sports can lead to over-specialization of movement range and patterns and may also lead to increased levels of stress. Children are being enrolled in sport teams at increasingly younger ages and their days overflow with similar structured activities and the shuttling between them. Little or no time is left at the end of the day for the free, active play time that they need.
So, let’s fast-forward. Is movement – energetic and complex – any less important when you’re 23? 43? 73? How about sensory-rich environments? Playing outdoors? We’re established, right? We’re either smart, gifted, slow, talented, delayed, ADHD, ADD, memory challenged, depressed, organized, efficient or not, so that movement stuff doesn’t really matter to us (except for weight maintenance or being beach-ready)…right?
Wrong. We continue to be the chemical, electrical and physical imprint of our own making, and we can choose to change this imprint simply by moving. And the kind of movement that is best either elevates your heart rate, is complex in nature or, ideally, incorporates both.
Of course, we are not saying movement is the only way to help you change behaviors or address physical or cognitive issues, but it’s movement’s effects we are focusing on here.
“It’s about growth versus decay, activity versus inactivity. The body was designed to be pushed, and in pushing our bodies we push our brains too. Learning and memory evolved in concert with the motor functions that allowed our ancestors to track down food. So far as our brains are concerned, if we’re not moving, there’s no need to learn anything.” John Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, pg 71.
That last part sounds a bit like death, doesn’t it?