Monthly Archives: October 2014

Monkey Bars and Your Brain

Lonesome surfer catching waves at sunset at

Sunset surfer catching a wave on Central Coast, CA.

By: Tina Davidson

It is pretty obvious that a regular exercise routine is part of a healthy lifestyle.  Not only does exercise help keep our bodies fit but also our minds. This is a mantra I want to instill in my children and hopefully one day (in the very distant future) my grandchildren.

So, since I have a ways off until any tiny creatures are calling me “G-ma”, I’ll do my best to help my young children improve their executive function skills.  Studies have proven that these skills, like the ability to pay attention, multitask, and control responses, are improved with exercise.

Stand Up For Your Right to Exercise

It seems you’ve got to get children running and playing so they can sit longer and focus in the classroom.  However, I suggest the public education system consider standing desks over traditional desks because according to a September 2014 Time.com article, “sitting is killing you.”

The future doesn’t have to be bleak and we can help our children increase their longevity.  One way to do this is to teach them “the single most important pilates exercise for you and your children” which is the sit to stand exercise, according to pilates expert, Alycea Ungaro. (Please see article on tips to safely perform this exercise).

Stand up

I tried this exercise and it is a little tricky getting back up once seated. I guess I’ll just have to practice more and find a “helper upper” to join me.

Exercise Your Right to Play

Perhaps you tried and your child is just not interested in the sit to stand exercise. No worries, structured exercise is not required to help children develop better executive function skills.  Gretchen Reynolds’s article, “How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains” for The New York Times states this point well:

Encourage young boys and girls to run, jump, squeal, hop and chase after each other or after erratically kicked balls, and you substantially improve their ability to think, according to the most ambitious study ever conducted of physical activity and cognitive performance in children.

The details of the study are worth checking out.  The results support parents who allow their children to run and play freely. I’m very encouraged by this– no more sheepishly dragging my children away from the playground when they appear to storm through the area like Max from Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. (Of course, I don’t allow them to respond, “I”LL EAT YOU UP!” when I tell them it is time to leave.)

Take the Monkey Bar Challenge

Why not join in and have some fun with your children on the playground? I thought about this the other day as I watched one of my son’s classmates swing effortlessly across the monkey bars. Once he made it across, another boy was waiting in line for his turn on the “MEGA bars!” as he called them. From a five-year-old’s perspective, the bars probably look quite intimidating.

Inspired by these fit fivers, I got in line, climbed to the top of the ladder, and just hung on the first bar.  I thought I’d drop right away and wouldn’t be able to hold my own body weight. Instead, I changed my thinking (remembering Kacy Cantanzaro’s incredible display of strength on America Ninja Warrior) and decided to conquer the mega bars.  Surprisingly, I made it across and it wasn’t as hard as I imagined. I’m hooked.

I like the idea of making a workout like play and wish Jon Hind’s Monkey Bar Gym was located in California and not Wisconsin.

Step inside Jon’s gym and you won’t see treadmills, leg extension machines, dumbbells or even mirrors. Instead, you’ll find something of an adult playground: ropes hanging from the ceiling and loads of medicine balls, ladders, traveling rings, jump ropes and, of course, people. “First, we teach clients how to use their bodies (the best machines in the world!) for basic motor fitness. …”

You could always forego a gym membership and hit a local park for your workout. I’d pick one with monkey bars.  For those that want to feel the burn on the monkey bars, try bending your knees and keep them at 90 degrees while you swing across the monkey bars for a total of four times.

I’m not about to attempt the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course any time soon just because I made it across the bars in front of a bunch of kindergarten students– but I was pretty proud of myself.  As I help my kids move towards better fitness, I’ll keep a positive attitude and try to be a more playful example.  My brain seems to perform best that way.

How about you? What exercise makes you feel strong and like a kid again?

I hope to see you on the playground taking the monkey bar challenge.

Resources & Further Reading

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Rubber Bands and Your Brain

The Abstract Brain

Illustration by E.D.

By: Tina Davidson

My second grader knows a lot about the brain.

This is thanks in part to the book, “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain!” by Dr. JoAnn Deak and illustrated by Sarah Ackerley.  His Montessori learning center teachers use this book to help their students understand how they can grow and stretch their brains.  One day my son had a conversation with me about his fantastic elastic brain. He explained he had a large rubber band when it came to math since this subject is a breeze, but when it came to reading he still had a small rubber band– he is not an expert reader yet.

This rubber band idea is explained in the lesson plans that accompany the book:

Each of us was born with large and small rubber bands, corresponding to areas in which we are skillful and areas where we can grow.  Model how rubber bands can stretch, and explain that this stretching is symbolic of brain growth.”

You can download the lesson plans for “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain” for free online and purchase the book on Amazon.

The Magic Decade

Recently, after a drawing exercise at school, my son brought home the picture posted above. He told me it was a picture of the brain and proceeded to tell me where the cerebrum, prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala were located on it. (As a brain blogger and mother, I was quite impressed with how much he knew about brain anatomy).  He also offered to draw and label the parts of the brain on his picture, but I told him it wasn’t necessary since I preferred the original abstract picture without the labels.

Sometimes I visualize my son’s brain more like a sponge than a rubber band– he soaks up information quickly and is able to retain it. He is in what Dr. Deak refers to as the “magic decade.” During the first ten year’s of one’s life, key neural connections are being made.  The University of Maine has a bulletin online that addresses the various stages of brain development in children, what you can do to support growth, and the different windows of learning. The bulletin mentioned:

Brain development does not stop after early childhood, but it is the foundation upon which the brain continues developing. Early childhood is the time to build either a strong and supportive, or fragile and unreliable foundation. These early years are very important in the development that continues in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

The early years are very important but remember the concept of neuroplasticity and that it is never too late at any age to grow and stretch your brain.

What routines have you established to help your children learn? How have you stretched your brain lately?  Do you think my son’s picture should have been orientated the other direction and I posted it upside down?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic of rubber bands and your brain.

Sources & Resources

Deak, JoAnn. “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain.”

Online lesson plans for “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain.” www.littlepicklepress.com

The University of Maine.  Judith Graham, Extension human development specialist. Revised by Leslie A. Forstadt, Ph.D. Child and Family Development Specialist. “Bulletin #4356, Children and Brain Development: What We Know About How Children Learn.”

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