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‘Re-thinking ‘Reward’; When it’s IN – not FOR – the doing!

The gap is closing between where we value ‘play’ and where we value ‘learning’, as we increasingly understand that they’re more intertwined than we thought.

But there’s more to it than that!
Because the games, the gap-fillers and the ‘five minutes of fun’; those that don’t really constitute ‘free’ or ‘unstructured’ play ; also do wonders for children’s brain development, biochemistry and learning capacity-not to mention their mental wellbeing as well.

But, because they fall into those last few minutes at the end of the day, or the last afternoon of the term, we tend to miss just how powerful these kinds of activities can be.

Here’s what that bit of fun can do;
Any kind of movement promotes the neurotransmitter dopamine. Whether it’s a good stretch or cardiovascular exercise, this feel-good hormone helps to speed up neural connectivity; i.e. learning-readiness.

So when we integrate movement into children’s learning, we do a whole lot more for their ability to engage than having them spend most of their time sitting in chairs.
Add some laugher and pro-social elements in there as well, and then you’ve got young brains firing on all cylinders.

And the super-duper news is that there are some super-quick ways to make this happen, without eating into your learning time;

  • The brain loves novelty; rearrange the room, change the seating arrangement, put your coats on and go learn outside for a few minutes

  • Stand up and move! An impromptu rendition of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes; a good stretch or some cross-lateral exercises means you don’t even need to change chairs

  • Get young people facing each other more often; the pre-frontal cortex; the brain’s CEO; is right behind the forehead because it’s designed to be lit up by eye-contact and social enrichment     

But what about those times when high energy is just what you don’t need; when you instead need to bring calm out of chaos?

More good news; a state of steadiness is good for learning-readiness.
There are reasons which belong to another blog that explain why not all children can achieve that, but in the main, steadiness is gold dust for both wellbeing and ‘well doing’.

’Polyvagal Theory’ (ref; Stephen Porges) is teaching us about the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’, and how to switch brains and bodies from the almost permanent; and not-very-healthy; state of fight or flight, to our ‘rest-and-digest’ state.
This is where we function much better; being receptive, engaged, and self-regulated.
And from a child’s perspective, this is inevitably a much better place to learn from.

The added value of parasympathetic activity is that it generates serotonin, our mood stabilising and brain balancing hormone, which (like dopamine) helps to flush adrenaline and cortisol from the brain and body.

These stressor hormones slow neural connectivity down at the best of time, but in too high doses, can do great harm.

Neural imaging has concluded that living in a state of enduring toxic stress literally destroys whole pockets of brain tissue, so don’t think for a moment that self-care; for yourself or the children you support; is a waste of time.

And you don’t need very much of it. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system only need take a couple of minutes, and here’s how you can;

  • The 4-7-8 technique involves breathing in (through the nose) for four counts, holding the breath in for seven counts, and releasing it slowly (through the mouth) for eight counts. Do that at least four times

  • Mindfulness quietens the internal chatter, but it doesn’t have to mean an empty mind. Take notice; where are the reds, the yellows, the blues? How many shades of green can you see? Where are the circles, the squares?…
    Close your eyes and really tune in. What can you hear?

  • ‘Mindful colouring books’ can work a treat, but creativity can help calm the mind in far more expansive ways. Doodle. Or just let the pencil lead without thinking… This is about process; as soon as the outcome is important, it stops doing the work.

All of these can go against the grain of what we may be more accustomed to-stress, busyness, “I just need to…”; and so they may take practice. Persevere!

And likewise; counter-intuitive as it can feel; ditch the desks more often…. And the idea that fun is for ‘when we’ve finished’; something we have to work for.

It’s a good motivator, but brains thrive on reward… So its’ a wasted opportunity, isn’t it, if we only dish them out for crossing the finishing line?

Let’s re-think them. ‘Reward’ is a feeling, not a ‘thing’. Imagine how much more children would have to give if the reward is in the doing, and not just for the doing!  

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