Does acting like a fetus for 10 minutes a day actually help kids learn?
In many Irish schools, learning to move like a fetus is now part of the curriculum. The theory is that mimicking some of the movements they made in the womb makes kids better at math and reading. New Age nonsense?
Apparently not. A well-designed new study by Dr. Julie-Ann Jordan-Black followed 842 Irish children for two years and found that
those who participated in Primary Movement classes made startling gains in standardized tests—including kids with “very significant learning difficulties.” Or, to put it another way, acting like a baby for 10 to 15 minutes a day seems to help kids learn.
Primary Movement looks, well, odd. Younger children perform a series of 16 exercises in time with nursery songs; older children, eyes closed, complete a sequence of very gradual movements. The overall effect is a mixture of tai chi, a slow motion sonogram, and paint drying.
The exercises themselves are based on the primary reflexes—rooting, grasping, specific neck movements—displayed in utero. “As the brain stem is becoming active, it releases these reflexes; in a reciprocal action, the movement in turn rebounds to shape the central nervous system. It’s a bit like the fetus has its own training program,” explains Martin McPhillips, a psychology professor at Queen’s University of Belfast who has spent 11 years
developing Primary Movement training.
In the first year of life, however, primary reflexes should switch off and be replaced by a secondary set of postural reflexes that support the child’s transition to the upright world of the toddler. But some kids don’t go through this process, says McPhillips, whose own research suggests that poor children are at greater risk. “The most obvious reasons are the normal risk factors, like prematurity and low birth weight, but there is a hereditary angle as well.”
And when primary reflexes persist, they can make school work gruelling. Particularly
troublesome is the assymetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR): “If you turn a newborn’s head to the right, the right arm will extend outwards and the right leg will start to kick as well, while the left arm will fold up behind the head and the left leg will probably fold up as well, so the baby looks like a little fencer.” The average parent or teacher would be unaware that a 10-year-old had persistent ATNR, but the child’s attempts to resist the underlying reflex would make it difficult to, say, copy words from a spelling book. “You might have a funny grip on the pencil, use a lot more tension, lean on the
page more heavily and so forth, and after a few lines you’ll probably put the pencil down and shake your hand because you’re absolutely exhausted,” says McPhillips.
According to Jordan-Black’s study, ATNR persistence is “significantly associated with level of attainments in reading, spelling and mathematics,” and boys are more likely to have it than girls. Primary Movement, which gives children another chance to repeat primary reflexes, seems to make them go away, and to lead to “very significant improvements in reading and mathematics.”
“If a child has a deficit, it seems to improve almost immediately. I know, it sounds magical,” laughs Gillian Beck, special educational needs coordinator at Oakwood Inte-
grated Primary School in Belfast, where for the past 18 months all students have participated in the program. Do they grumble about the exercises? “If the child has persistent reflexes, the exercises are difficult, and we do get a fair bit of moaning,” concedes Beck. But the academic results—half of Oakwood’s graduating class of ll-year-olds has jumped a full level ahead in both literacy and numeracy—ensure parental support.
Anecdotal evidence from Beck and other teachers supports Jordan-Black’s finding: kids with the most complex learning issues show the most dramatic improvements. This is big news because Primary Movement is cheap— there’s no special equipment, teacher training is the only cost—and many other interventions for kids with dyslexia and other learning difficulties have never been proven conclusively to work. “We’ve looked at other programs, and you get slight improvements,” professor Peter Hepper of Belfast’s Royal Maternity Hospital, who has also studied Primary Movement, told the BBC. “This is just out of all comparison.”
Joy Johnson, who works in Chester, S.C. and is currently the only Primary Movement teacher in North America, thinks she knows why it works: “It’s not more of the same. If your child has trouble reading, the answer isn’t giving them another book, or more worksheets. It seems so basic that you think, why hasn’t this been done before?” M
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