Will Skipping to School Make Reading Easier?

Can skipping improve your child’s reading skills? We’re not talking about skipping school or grades, but rather skipping at school — skipping down the sidewalk, across the park, at home and anywhere in between. Skipping, it turns out, is the kind of motor activity that forges communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. And so, yes, absolutely: Skipping can strengthen the connections that get the right side of the brain to work cooperatively with the left — and that makes it easier for us to read.

Kids who have a hard time skipping sometimes have a harder time reading than kids who can skip. We don’t put a lot of thought into skipping, but if you try to visualize it right now (or, even better, get up and skip!), you’ll see that the natural pattern is for your right arm to go up with your left leg, and your left arm with your right leg. Both sides of your brain are working together to orchestrate this cross-body synchronicity. When a child spends time skipping, both sides of the brain get a workout.

“Reading requires the same cooperation between the two brain hemispheres,” says Pat Jones, a teacher in North Carolina whose website is a resource for other reading teachers. When you read a line of text, your brain needs to cross the midline from left to right. For a child first learning to read, it’s as if one side of the brain is handing the text over to the other side. Once she gets to the end of the line, her eyes need to sweep down and left (another relay handoff to the other side of the brain) to continue reading the next line. Forging connections between the two sides of the brain is essential to grow reading skills.

In their book Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows From Conception to College, neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., and Sam Wang, Ph.D., say, “No matter how children learn to read, the general pattern is the same: Starting from a very focused group of brain regions, children eventually come to use a much broader network.” Aamodt and Wang also advocate the importance of physical education and recess at school. The trend in some school districts to cut out these built-in opportunities for movement signals bad news for brain health in general.

During a brain health workshop for librarians in Seattle for Brain Awareness Week 2012, Paul D. Nussbaum, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist, commented on the decline of recess time for children: “You have no learning cells in your buttocks.”

Most of us are well aware that physical activity and general fitness are good for the brain. The link between specific movements and reading may even sound familiar if you’ve ever heard the notion that “babies who crawl before they walk have better verbal skills.” When I first heard that, I thought it was an empty platitude to ease one of the thousand worries of a new parent, in this case a woman’s fear that her baby might be crawling on all fours before turning 4. Then I began reading that brain researchers and educational kinesiologists continued to see a neurological link between crawling and reading. It isn’t necessarily the order of crawl-before-you-walk that’s as important so much as the crawling, creeping movement that gets both sides of the brain working.

Don’t fret if your child wasn’t enamored with crawling! Most kids will find other ways to improve this cross-brain communication. And it makes sense that as our children grow, their brains can still benefit from certain types of movement and activities. Like skipping.

Of course, skipping isn’t the only key to this type of brain development. Any physical activity that uses cross-lateral movement (which just means crossing from one side to the other) is going to help create and strengthen those brain connections.

Imagine a line going down the middle of your body: That’s your midline. Physical movements that make your arms, legs or eyes cross this midline will help train the brain to use its halves in harmony. Activities as simple as patty-cake or other hand-clapping games — or even a couple of rounds of hokey pokey — involve crossing this midline.

So what happens if there’s a concerted effort to improve the ability of students to cross the midline? Buffy McClelland, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, cites studies that show “coordinated movement produces a considerably larger positive improvement in reading (for children aged 7 or over), when compared to regular physical exercise.” McLelland points to a 2007 study (“The Effects of Movement on Literacy,” K.S. Luppe, East Tennessee State University) that followed 41 first-grade students who did cross-lateral movement and eye-tracking exercises every day for four weeks. Students’ literacy skills were measured before and after the four-week period, and were also compared against a control group. Girls in the group that did daily cross-lateral activities improved more than girls in the control group.

However, boys didn’t show as much improvement. One theory for the difference between the boys and the girls is that 6- and 7-year-old boys may not have been developmentally ready to do these movements. The cautionary message there for us as parents is that we shouldn’t force these activities on our children, regardless of their gender. We can encourage and coach them along the way with incremental movements, but only if they’re ready.

You certainly don’t need to make cross-body movement a regimented plan for your children. Instead, take some of the games you already play with your kids and see if there’s a way to add a little extra cross-lateral movement to the mix. Get silly pretending to be different animals, including an elephant with a trunk (your arm) swinging side to side.

Art projects can get physical and be extra brain healthy, too. A large piece of paper for finger-painting provides the space to move so your child reaches across his body to take full advantage of the space that’s just begging to be painted. Encourage your child to use each hand separately and to reach to the opposite side of the paper. Or you could also have a challenge where both of you use your non-dominant hand to create a stunning finger-painted masterpiece. If your child likes to do puzzle books, be sure to provide a book of maze puzzles or word-search games to the mix to encourage his eyes to cross the midline.

Once you start thinking about engaging both sides of the brain and fueling the corpus callosum (the official name for the area between the brain’s two hemispheres), your own brain will come up with small adjustments to make family activities an even better workout for your kids’ brains. Keep both sides of the brain working together through play, art, games and plain old skipping.

One last thought: If skipping can be so good for the brain, perhaps it’s a signal to us that we could all use a little more hopping and fun in our lives.

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