The power of movement

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August 1, 2011
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch

Northeast camp uses special exercises to help bolster children’s academic potential

At a Northeast day camp, 10-year-old kids with autism navigate an unusual obstacle course.

They walk a balance beam, hang on monkey bars and alligator-crawl across mats. These exercises aren’t just for fun — all of them are designed to stimulate the type of brain activity needed in academics.

The nonprofit A Chance To Grow at 1800 2nd St. NE was founded in 1982, and it’s starting to reach out to the Northeast community.

“[We want] the community to come out to see the program, see the kids, talk to the parents, and realize that this is in their backyard,” said Amy Deden, event and workshop coordinator. “People don’t know that we’re here.”

Many of the clients at A Chance To Grow have Down Syndrome, autism or attention deficit disorder, although the center serves healthy kids as well. In addition to exercise, the clinic offers therapies that hook kids up to video games and teach them to focus their brain activity. Other therapies help kids who see double images or have trouble hearing certain pitches.

Staff have spent the past year reaching out to Northeast in new ways. They recently partnered with a Northeast yoga teacher to teach classes at the camp. They’re also partnering with Northeast clubs like the Lions and Exchange Club to host neighborhood picnics and develop scholarships. And they’re dreaming up ideas for after-school programs in Northeast, as well as trips that would teach adolescents how to use local grocery stores.

“We have such great community people here,” said Occupational Therapist Julie Neumann. “People love Northeast. They believe in it and they fight for it, and they fight for their programs.”

A Chance To Grow is more than a health clinic. It runs a daycare center, and it provides teacher workshops across the country. The agency has gained national recognition for its “S.M.A.R.T.” program, which encourages teachers to take breaks for exercise in the classroom. Movement is vital for kids to focus — it “gets the wiggles out,” Neumann said.

“Bodies need organized movement so they can stay still to learn,” Neumann said.

After 80 hours of exercises like the ones mentioned above, children on average make a six-month reading gain, according to the agency. Today, 300 schools across the country use the S.M.A.R.T. strategy, and this summer, staff are conducting teacher workshops in states like Delaware, Tennessee and Michigan.

Shari, grandmother to 16-year-old Luke, said that in younger grades, Luke would spend his classroom hours in a daze — he would love nothing more than to simply sit in his room and be quiet, she said. But all of the camp’s emphasis on movement has made a change. Now, Luke wants to go to the gym and play basketball.

“He’s grounded; he’s aware,” she said. “New, wonderful, expansive things keep happening
to Luke.”

For kids with developmental disabilities, a simple exercise like walking on a balance beam helps them develop balance and spatial awareness, which are skills they need to simply sit still in a classroom or read from left to right. Other exercises, like crossing the monkey bars, force a kid’s eyes to work together and fuse each eyeball’s image into one. That’s an important skill for reading.

 “We get to the root level — the basics of movement — and build up from there,” Neumann said.

The summer day camp “Boost Up Plus” spends three intensive weeks on fun exercises and neurotechnology therapies. The program is filled to capacity, and it draws people from across the metro and even attracted a family from Canada last June.

“I spent many, many hours researching places all over the world, so it just seemed like the best of everything,” said Cheryl, a visitor from Canada whose 11-year-old daughter Danielle has severe speech delays. “Anything I have researched, this combines it all.”

Another mother, Kelly, said she appreciates the one-stop-shop for her son, Joe, who is 8 years old and has Down Syndrome.

“You do so much driving to therapies and doctors; it’s so scattered,” Kelly said.

She tried the Boost Up Plus camp last summer to help Joe’s speech delays and reflexes.

“I saw huge differences from before and after,” she said. “His speech has come further in the last nine months than I’ve seen it come in eight years.”

Kelly also takes advantage of the neurotechnology available at A Chance To Grow. She uses AVE sunglasses to help Joe relax and go to sleep at night.

“He usually sacks right out,” she said.

The sunglasses, which are called Audio Visual Entrainment (AVE), flash lights that mimic the sensation of sitting by a campfire. The glasses are hugely popular at A Chance To Grow. Staff have trained 46 Minnesota schools on how to use them, and they have sold 600 machines to patients since 2001.

“For centuries, people have looked at how flickering lights affect the body,” said Becky Aish, director of neurotechnology services. “Scientists found that watching a candle flame could calm hysteria for some people.”

The pulsing lights match brainwave patterns that can help someone relax (similar to the light a television gives off), or stimulate neurons for academic success. At the same time, a pair of headphones plays music with heartbeats and pulses that help brainwaves get into a certain groove. Olympic athletes and even football teams have used the technology to gear up for sports events.

“I used one to get through my master’s program,” Neumann said. “I used mine for migraines.”

Children also try a therapy called EEG Neurofeedback. Electrodes on their heads measure their brain activity while they watch a dolphin jump in the water, or a plane flying in the sky. If they become distracted, anxious or tired, their brainwaves trigger the game to stop moving. Aish said the goal here is to help children relax and unconsciously teach their brains to rid itself of foggy, unfocused brain activity. Games like this can target the brain state needed for yoga or meditation.

“So many of our kids are in fight-or-flight mode all the time,” Aish said. “We want them to relax and de-stress their body. …. We’re teaching the brain how to appropriately work.”

Michelle Bruch covers Northeast for The Journal.