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Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education:
Movement as Primary in Learning Processes
Rebecca R Burrill, EdD
Educational Therapist and Movement Director
Primacy of Movement
Movement as the foundation for our brain’s organization,
development, and learning has been a part of educational approaches
since the late 60’s. The work of Jean Ayres was and still is in the
forefront of this approach (Ayres et al 2008). Ayres’ work as an
occupational therapist and developmental psychologist underscored the
function of the vestibular system—triggered by physical movement in the
gravitational field—as the foundation for motor-sensory-perceptual
integration, more commonly known as sensory integration (Robbins 1977).
The vestibular is a part of the body’s proprioceptive system, which
informs us about body movement in space, weight (gravity), and time.
The first cranial nerve to myelinate in utero is the
vestibular/cochlear, which registers movement, vibration, and tone in
muscles and sound. In the beginning the fetus’ perceptual system is
bathed and stimulated by the motion and sound resonance of the mother’s
body and voice. This in turn triggers reflexive and spontaneous
movement, which stimulates the whole motor-sensory-perceptual feed back
loop of brain organization, development, and learning. In the
beginning, to move is to perceive. All of our other senses are
organized on this fundamental movement-sound neuronal base.
As a dancer with training in theory and practice in dance/movement
therapy, I orient my educational approach to child development and
learning through a psychobiology lens. We must move first to perceive
our three-dimensional world in the forces of space, weight, and time
(Bainbridge-Cohen 2008). Through this movement we build inner precepts
or images that match the outer world. These are prototypes of
experience, sometimes called cognitive universals (Dissanayake 1995).
This movement-sound based precept building is the biological part of
psychobiological process (Burrill 2010).
This fundamental movement-sound unity is exemplified in the nonverbal
communication between mother and infant, such as when baby makes
high-pitched sounds and mother raises her eyebrows and shoulders in
matching movements (Dissanayake 2001). This is a mirroring process.
Mirroring has been a fundamental technique in dance/movement therapy,
and more recently a focus in neuroscience (Berrol 2006). This
‘mirroring’ between mother and infant is a subjective, emotionally
imbued meaningful process that happens through the movements of facial
expression, body gesture, muscle tone, and voice intonation. This
emotionally imbued meaning making is the psychological part of
Emotionally imbued biological precepts drive the engine that builds
subjective images of memory, dream, analogy and metaphor of the inner
personal world (Hannaford 2005). The communication of the infant mother
dyad is also cross-modal—translations of feeling experience from one
sense to another, known as synesthesia. Cross-modal integration and
association become a basis for aesthetic perception and intelligence.
Cognitive universals become proto-aesthetic elements that naturally and
spontaneously amplify, frame, and evoke emotional-feeling-imaginative
meaning (Dissanayake 1995). This perspective points to the earliest
brain organization of the motor-sensory-perceptual process as the basis
for language and the aesthetic expression of movement and sound—dance
and music (Burrill 2001).
The refinement of focus specifically on the primacy of movement and
sound and their aesthetic counterparts—dance and music—is corroborated
by a recent doctoral study on emotional intelligence and the arts by
Susan Clark, an associate of Xan Johnson (a subsequent contributor to
this series of articles). The study measured emotional intelligence
scores in relationship to arts programs provided to fifth graders.
Dance and music were the art forms with the highest positive
correlation effecting scores for emotional intelligence (http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd1489.pdf).
A Movement Based Research Study
I conducted qualitative emergent-design doctoral research in
which I introduced dance and art-making as activity choices two times a
week in a public pre-school (Burrill 2001). These activities were
improvisational and spontaneous—child centered—providing a high degree
of freedom of movement and expression. They were compared with morning
circle time, an activity where movement was highly controlled and
The comparison was done though a dance/movement therapy assessment tool—The Kestenberg Movement Profile (KMP). The KMP (http://www.kestenbergmovementprofile.org)
is psychobiological, recognizing that a biological pattern of muscular
behavior generates a corresponding psychological meaning. For example,
the biological-muscular experience of lightness-of-weight, ordinarily
generates psychological meanings associated with happiness, ease,
humor, inspiration, fickleness, giddiness and so forth.
The KMP developmentally delineates biological needs and drives for
survival, emotional-feeling dispositions, and the sense of self in
relationship to the environment, others, and learning (Kestenberg
Amighi et al 1999). I used the KMP to give insight into the nonverbal,
subjective experience of the children. I asked the question: Did the
educational environment foster or hinder the creative process of
I used the KMP innovatively to assess group movement of the children in
the three activities—dance, art and circle time (Burrill 2001, 2011).
My final interpretation of results hinged on scores for the following:
Animated vs. deanimated emotion
Ego-conscious control of behavior
The biological age being expressed in both the dance and art
activities was age appropriate. For circle time the biological age was
regressed, mostly expressing needs and drives for the first and second
years of life. This indicates behaviors resembling developmental delays.
Full animation of emotion was being expressed in dance and art,
whereas in circle time there was an above normal amount of deanimated
emotion—an indication of inner emotional conflict and feelings of
unsafety and distrust of the environment.
The dance and art activities expressed balance of self-feelings,
while circle time expressed an imbalance of closed, isolated and
defensive feelings, an indication of feelings of low self-esteem.
Lastly the KMP delineates the maturation of ego-conscious control
of behavior. The scores for dance and art indicated that these
activities allowed the children to express themselves with the more
unconscious and instinctual spontaneity that is appropriate for their
age (Blomberg & Dempsey 2007). Whereas circle time scores indicated
Movement, Homeostasis, and Learning
As an educator I see these results in terms of the role of
homeostasis in early learning and development. Homeostasis is the
maintained balance, or matching between self and world. This is
understood to be a biological, perceptual, emotional, and rational
process (Damasio 1999).
In order for children to learn creatively, they must feel safe and
accepted for their own natural learning processes (Perry 2009).
Children need learning environments that are age-appropriate so that
homeostasis can stabilize and creative learning be fostered.
The above results indicate that the high control of movement and
expression in morning circle time was disruptive to homeostasis. It
seems that the children were being required to use a level of
motor-sensory-perceptual organization and ego conscious control that
was not age-appropriate. This caused biological confusion (regression),
and anxiety and distrust of themselves and their environment. It seems
that internally the children’s energy and focus were struggling to
maintain homeostasis rather then being channeled for creative learning
(Perry & Pollard 1998).
Results also indicate that freedom of movement and expression, in their
aesthetic forms of dance and art-making, allowed the developing
children to feel safe and accepted in their own natural leaning
processes. This stabilized homeostasis and therefore fostered the
creative process of learning.
Results also point to the highly influential and delicately balanced
relationship between the educational environment and the children’s
inner learning processes. Children are especially vulnerable to their
environmental influences because they are building a neuronal template
for homoeostasis, which needs to be patterned to encourage later
learning and development (Perry & Pollard, 1998).
Freedom of movement and expression are old themes in the
democratic and child centered project of progressive education. That
aesthetic intelligence is intrinsically entwined with the biology of
movement—most fundamentally through dance and music—is rarely
understood or acknowledged. Dance is the least represented of the arts
in public schools. Arts in general are considered an expendable frill;
and if not, they are commonly thought to be items to be integrated into
the 3 R’s. Rather, the arts are developmentally precursors and fertile
ground for the integration of the three R’s and literacy skills based
learning. Arts are the fundamental in which movement and dance are
Ayres, J., Robbins, J., McAfee, S. & Pediatric
Therapy Network. (2008). Sensory integration and the child:
Understanding hidden sensory challenges. Torrance, CA: Western
Bainbridge-Cohen, B., Nelson, L. & Smith,
N. S. (2008). Sensing, feeling, and action: The experiential anatomy of
body-mind centering. Northampton, MA: Contact Editions.
Berrol, Cynthia F. (2006). Neuroscience meets
dance/movement therapy: Mirror neurons, the therapeutic process and
empathy. The Arts in Psychotherapy 33, 302–315.
Blomberg, H. & Dempsey M. (2007). Rhythmic
movement training level one: RMT and ADD/ADHD. AND Rhythmic
movement training level two: The limbic system and RMT. Course
Manual for Training Workshops. Melbourne, Australia: RMT
Burrill, R. (2001). The effects of teaching/learning
environments on the creative process of learning evidenced through a
movement analysis tool: The Kestenberg movement profile. Available from
ProQuest Dissertations and Theses databases. (UMI No. 3012118) and
University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Burrill, R. (2010). The primacy of movement in art making. Teaching Artist Journal, 8(4), 216-228.
Burrill, R. (2011). Movement, art, and child
development through the lens of an innovative use of the Kestenberg
Movement Profile in American Journal of Dance Therapy, Vol 33, no. 2,
Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens:
Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt
Brace & Co.
Dissanayake, E. (1995). Homo Aestheticus. WA: University of Washington Press.
Dissanayake, E. (2001). Becoming homo aestheticus:
Sources of aesthetic imagination in mother-infant interactions.
SubStance, 30 (1 & 2), 85-103.
Hannaford, C. (2005). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Salt Lake City, UT: Great River Books.
Kestenberg Amighi, J., Loman, S., Lewis, P., &
Sossin, M. (1999). The meaning of movement: Developmental and clinical
perspectives on the Kestenberg Movement Profile. New York: Gordon and
Perry, B., & Pollard, R. (1998). Homeostasis,
stress, trauma, and adaptation: A neurodevelopmental view of childhood
trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7
Robbins, J. (1977). Vestibular Integration: Man's Connection to the Earth. Somatics. Autumn.
Rebecca R Burrill
Rebecca R Burrill is an educational therapist, movement
educator, dancer, and visual artist. She received her doctorate in
studies focusing on the relationships between movement, brain
evolution, child development, art making, and learning. She is trained
in a dance-movement therapy assessment tool—The Kestenberg Movement
Profile, and in occupational therapy related systems such as Brain Gym,
Rhythmic Movement Training, and Body-Mind Centering. She works in
private practice as an educational therapist and movement educator with
all ages. She is a certified elementary educator and is artistic
director of improvisationally based dance programs in schools, K-12.
She recently performed a solo dance piece—Dancing the Dunes—linking
languages of nature with languages of art, exemplifying her work of
linking human intelligence with primal human relationship with Nature
as instrumental in the development of language and art. Through this
understanding she seeks to renew human engagement with the primary
creative intelligences of movement, sound, feeling, imagination and
ecological conscious and their natural, organic, empowering and
integrative capacities. Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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