September 2015 –
Take a walk! The actual natural movement of the legs and arms in syncopation—left leg/right arm forward, right leg/left leg forward—is both rhythmic and comforting. This is the pattern we grow to repeat and repeat again following those first hesitant steps as a toddler, when we finally let go of the coffee table and took off!
Does gait matter? Absolutely. However as easy as our walking pattern may feel, there is an inherent complexity to walking that goes back to the central nervous system. Consider all the body parts involved from the ground up: feet, heels, ankles, legs, knees, pelvis, hips, low back—all of our lower body is involved. And how these movements coordinate impacts our stability.
Much of the research on gait emphasizes the lower part of the body. However, the upper body has critical importance. There is much research to be found that analyses the lower body and gait. Is there also importance to what is called “upper body kinematics of trunk and arms,” or the fluidity of movement in the torso and the swinging of the arms?
Chiropractic neurologist Dr. Barry L. Kaye advises the following: “The natural arm swing during walking improves stability and energy efficiency. Consider that 80% of the time we are walking we are actually balancing on one leg or the other. Walking is a balancing act. Our arms provide more than the sensibility of balance—they assist with balance dramatically. With an appropriate gait our arm swing effortlessly supports the coordination of our rhythm and stabilizes us in our walking patterns.
“How does gait impact brain function? Keep in mind that a brain functions in a more optimum state when both the right and left hemispheres are working together. This hemispheric integration assists us in all of our activities and behaviors, including, and most significantly, learning. Coordinated and balanced movement on both sides of the body can then be seen as basic exercises for learning readiness. This activity can be as simple as walking.
“Each brain hemisphere has sensory and motor control of the opposite side of the body. When we walk in a rhythmic patterns of arm swings in coordination with the lower body, simply put, this facilitates brain integration. When this movement is restricted, we are inhibiting natural brain integration.”
An Opportunity for Learning
In schools, educators want to do all that is possible to maximize learning, in and out of the classroom. Consider the concern that schools place on hallway behavior. Children are expected to be quiet so as not to disturb what is occurring in classes. Ensuring this is practiced by adults and children alike has value, and can also represent a core value of the school: We respect each other. This idea of mutual respect has tremendous significance when building school climate and culture.
However, I have never seen adults having formalized restrictions on how they walk in the hallway. Children—yes. Adults—no. The restrictions placed on children have inherent problems that actually can impede learning and definitely has missed learning opportunities.
What do I mean by “walking in the hallway with restrictions”? In elementary schools, I have heard or and seen practices that include:
- Children walk single file in absolute silence with arms along their sides, no movement.
- Children walk single file in absolute silence with arms crossed and folded in front of their torso, held firm and still.
- Children walk single file in absolute silence with arms crossed behind their backs, holding the opposite forearm.
- Children walk single file in absolute silence with air filling their cheeks like puffer fish and arms crossed behind their backs, holding the opposite forearm.
When students are expected to behave in unreasonable ways they naturally have problems. This is true for all of us. How many of you loved walking single file in absolute silence in elementary school? What happened then in middle school as you had free rein in the hallways? An invitation to chaos! What learning opportunities are being missed along the way?
From a brain function standpoint, we want to encourage every possible opportunity for brain stimulation and integration. We want that child’s brain turned on, definitely not turned off.
Can children learn to walk in the hallways with appropriate gait quietly and respectfully? Yes they can. Can they learn to do so with gentle arm swings that show healthy movement? Of course, especially when they receive information about their brains and how this helps them to think and to learn! Can we trade out “Line Up” with “Pair Up!” so again, we create a learning opportunity: children learning to have quiet conversations with a partner as they move through the hallway, just the way adults do (I also call this “date preparation”).
And Dr. Kaye agrees. “By imposing unhealthy physical restrictions on children, we are imposing an unnecessary restraint that does not support healthy brain activity. Children respond to accurate information. They enjoy learning about their bodies, and their brain fascinates them.”
I was recently asked how this could be worked out with kindergarten children. Can little children understand the difference between quiet talking and absolute silence? Can they practice this? Of course, and the process can be academic. They can act out different scenarios in the classroom and practice them in the hallway. The lessons can include appropriate arm movement and syncopation—perfect for a music lesson. In science children can learn how sound travels, and in physical education consider the length of gait and the way the arms move in coordination. In math, introduce the concept of volume requiring variance: too much water in a glass causes a spill; when many people are in the hall we must walk in single file because of crowds, when fewer people are in the hall we can pair up and practice our quiet speaking. Who can make the evaluation? Children! First, a teacher and child can peek into the hallway and together decide if the walk to the library will be “Line Up” for a crowded hallway or “Pair Up” when space permits. The child announces her findings to the class and everyone knows just what to do. Sooner than you would expect, two children can make this assessment. The more that children participate in decision making, the more they learn self-regulation. And the child who struggles with these choices can be partnered with the teacher while learning and lead the way!
Gait and learning. The combination supports brain function.
- Recently the movie Inside Out has provided an exceptional way to discuss the brain with children, and with other adults. Much of the movie takes place inside the brain of a young girl and animates basic ideas of how the brain works.
- Crawl! When on all fours you actual return to the basics of right-left brain coordinated activity. See the Kinesthetics: Movement, Balance, Strength exercises Standing Cross Crawl and Arm Swings found in RESOURCES.
- Put down the cell phone when walking. Give yourself the opportunity to enjoy the easy gait of walking, arms swinging naturally, and the relaxation this provokes. When all is functioning with our gait, our body establishes a rhythm and the gentle (also natural) twisting wakes us up to be more alert inside and out.
- Walk! Take walks regularly. Walking on gym equipment is helpful for exercise, however, when possible walk in nature. Find your rhythm. Enjoy!
Be well! Be healthy!
Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A., is an educator/author who loves to takes walks and enjoys consulting with schools all over the world.
Barry L. Kaye, D.C., D.A.C.A.N. is a chiropractic neurologist based in Los Angeles.
The information in this blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult a health professional before undertaking any new health regime.