Exercising That Mind–Body Connection

New for the 2012–2013 school year, The New Century School provides a gymnasium for physical education! In keeping with TNCS’s progressive, forward-thinking style, though, this gym is no ordinary gym. The Lingo Leap (TLL), as it is now known officially, integrates physical exercise with cognitive development—moving and learning!

TLL’s philosophy is that brains work more efficiently when the body is also engaged, and there’s plenty of hard science to back up this notion. In fact, neuroimaging shows that during movement, more brain areas are lit up, meaning that more of the brain is active and in use. Why not take advantage of this “powered-up” state and give the brain something to do with its extra energy? Let’s face it—one of the most challenging tasks we can give our hungry brains is learning a new language.

The Lingo Leap is run by Amy Pothong

TLL Director Amy Pothong

So, TLL focuses on multiple language acquisition; currently, yoga, dance, and other movement classes are being offered for ages 2 and up (including for interested parents) in your choice of English, French, or Spanish with plans to add classes in Mandarin and Arabic soon. TNCS students, by the way, get regular phys ed at the gym in Spanish. TLL Director Amy Pothong says that “when [students] are totally immersed, they speak like natives.” Although this idea might sound revolutionary, it’s actually “getting back to the basics.” “As we get older,” says Pothong, we must get more socially standardized, which can hinder our natural ability to learn through movement.” Babies, she points out, largely communicate through gestures, which are a very basic form of movement and hearken back to the earliest human communication by our ancient ancestors.

The connection, then, between bodily movement and thought conveyance is well established in our being. Two main schools of thought have emerged to explore how we can optimize this connection to actually learn to communicate better (or at least in more than one language). First was Total Physical Response (TPR), developed in the mid-1960s by Dr. James Asher as a method of learning a second language. Asher noted that the conventional approach to learning second languages differed dramatically from how infants learn their first language. Infants learn to communicate by internalizing language, a process of protracted listening and absorbing. TPR is a technique that replicates that process for learning second languages and beyond by giving a command, modeling the action described in the command, and then having the student imitate that action. Students are not initially asked to speak, but to comprehend and obey the command. Understanding is at the root of language acquisition, according to Asher. This makes a lot of sense when you consider how babies learn to respond to increasingly complex utterances before ever verbalizing a thought.

Language acquisition expert Stephen Krashen has found this method very effective. Read his article on TPR here. He says, “A constraint on all activities that we might consider is that they be interesting for both the teacher and the students; it is difficult to fake enthusiasm.” Enter TLL with engaging movement classes for kids plus their parents!

The second school of thought is known as SPARK. SPARK was put forth by Dr. John J. Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Exercise, contends Ratey, dramatically enhances circulation to the brain and encourages synaptic growth, thereby priming the brain for improved function—providing the “spark,” in other words. Improvements in function include both mental health as well as cognitive ability (think, learning languages at TLL!). A significant corollary to SPARK theory is that exercise also improves academic performance after exercise, whereas TPR focuses on learning during movement. Read more about Dr. Ratey’s findings and about his latest book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, on his website. (His wasn’t the first, incidentally: Plato argued for the ideal education to incorporate physical training in The Republic more than 2,000 years ago.)

Gerstung equipment can be moved and reconfigured in endless ways

Gerstung Movement Education equipment at TLL

About that physical training, TLL features state-of-the-art Gerstung gym equipment that “[encourages] children to use their own innate curiosity to stimulate movement. Created by Siegfried Gerstung, a world-renowned educator, Gerstung equipment is not only customizable and moveable to provide “movement education” in three dimensions, but the Gerstung company is locally owned, with that commitment to community shared by TNCS and TLL.

Director Pothong and her staff are themselves polylingual, and instructors are native speakers of the language they are teaching in. Pothong is Thai and may even hold Thai cooking classes at TLL next year. It’s a “multipurpose space,” she says, “that encourages social, mental, verbal, and physical development.” (And culinary!)

Registering for classes is a snap on TLL website–make the jump to polylingualism!

TMCS students stretch and move, following instructions given in Spanish

TMCS students participate in Spanish gym class