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Why Saying “Pay Attention” Makes No Sense

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When basic brain processing functions are not in place, it’s not always a choice to stay focused.

I’m not sure who coined the expression, “pay attention,” but that person obviously did not understand how the brain works.

First, the idea of paying attention is odd in that it infers the person receiving the information then owes something to the person who’s speaking or to the author of something being read.

But, what if those people are utterly boring? It happens, right?

In such case, why are the rest of us still obligated to forfeit our attention when the originator of such information is clearly dull? After all, even a highly well-organized brain resists paying attention to something that’s of no interest.

But then, how is attention affected when information is interesting and important—yet we have a disorganized brain? It turns out . . . this is a very significant variable.

Here are just a few examples of basic brain skills we may take for granted (if we have them) and how they may affect attention if we do not.

Primitive Reflexes
In natural brain organization, primitive reflexes are supposed to be integrated (most within the first year of life) so that voluntary movement and control are then possible.

However, when primitive reflexes are retained, we have to expend a lot of cortical activity trying to override them—which then distracts us from the task at hand.

Some retained primitive reflexes specifically trigger misconceptions about attention. For example, a retained Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) often makes it difficult to cross the midline to retrieve information that was stored in one hemisphere of the brain. In such case, we act as though we have no idea what someone has previously told us—that is, until we finally cross over to that side (which can be a few minutes or even hours later).

Or, when primitive reflexes are not integrated, we may not have acquired enough stability, especially around the midline and trunk, needed to sit still. So we constantly “wiggle” in our seat, which is also often interpreted as not paying attention.

Lower Brain Development
When the pons and midbrain are fully developed, we acquire automatic basic brain functions. For example, a fully developed midbrain automatically prioritizes and filters extraneous sensations (e.g. relegates clothing tags, the hum of an air conditioner, etc. to the “background”), sending on only important information to the cortex. That then makes it easy to focus on the task at hand.

In contrast, when midbrain development is incomplete, the cortex becomes bombarded with too much sensory information. So now, it must first direct its attention to that flood of sensory information as it tries to sort out what’s important and what’s not.

In general, whenever pons and midbrain development are incomplete, the cortex is preoccupied with finding ways to compensate for those missing, automatic brain functions—sometimes with success, sometimes not. But in all cases, the cortex is no longer able to do it’s “own job” as efficiently as if it weren’t preoccupied with picking up the slack for incomplete lower brain development.

Body Awareness
When we have good body awareness, we have an internal body map that allows us to know where our body parts are and what they are doing—without ever having to look at them.

However, if we do not have innate body awareness, we become distracted from whatever we are doing as soon as we don’t naturally sense a body part. For example, if we don’t “feel” where our feet are, we’re going to be preoccupied with that (which is why we may start tapping our foot)—no matter how much we may want to stay focused on whatever we’re supposed to be doing. In short, the brain will always address survival needs over everything else.

Vestibular Processing
Our vestibular system gives us many automatic functions, such as keeping our balance, staying alert, having good muscle tone, and maintaining a stable visual filed.

However, poor vestibular processing interferes with much of what we do throughout the day, including our ability to stay focused. For example, poor vestibular processing may make it impossible to “sit still and pay attention.” That’s because rocking movements “wake up” a sluggish system, whereas sitting still often results in zoning out. Low muscle tone also makes it difficult to sit in chairs without slouching or slumping.

Our attention is additionally challenged if our visual field is instable, since words may now actually move around the page as we read and write.

Poor balance is also a distraction. For example, we may have to expend extra cortical activity just to ensure that we don’t fall off the chair, or we may need to even get up and truly move around (since it’s much easier to balance while moving than while being still).

Eye Teaming
Good eye teaming allows our eyes to converge and diverge and align to see just one object, even though each eye is in a different field of vision. We need our eyes to team whenever we do near-point tasks, including (but not limited to) reading and writing.

However, without good eye teaming, we may see distortions when we read and write, such as words may blur or lines of text shift together, which then makes it difficult to concentrate. Consequently, we may look up and even gaze out the window since such actions provide temporary relief from the distorted text (staring into the distance does not require eye teaming).

And yes, it’s entirely possible that what started out as a compensation for poor eye teaming (looking up and away from the work) ends up distracting us with something else ( we’re now interested in whatever is going on outside the window)—but our original inattentiveness started with the poor eye teaming.

Keep in mind that people may also be missing basic brain processing skills than what are noted here. Or, people can be missing two, three or more automatic brain functions all at the same time—after all, there’s nothing that says we only get “whammied” once.

So, when we realize that a person’s brain may not be functioning as intended, we truly begin to appreciate how attention is not always a choice—even though saying, “pay attention,” infers otherwise.

That’s why I actually avoid ever thinking or using that phrase. Instead, I ask myself: How can I best engage (whomever)? That’s a very different mindset than just expecting attention.

Rather, such thinking now shines the spotlight on me to figure out how to make it easy for others to receive and process what I want to share. It also challenges me to regularly apply what I know about the brain and attention.

So, here’s a crazy thought. What if everyone agrees to chuck the phrase “pay attention” and, instead, focuses on how to engage others when sharing information? With that mindset, how might school be different? How might home life be different? How many kids would be so very grateful?

Maybe it’s time to find out.

Ideas to Make Creeping and Crawling Fun

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Parents discover that it's easy to incorporate books and games (both original and store-bought) while doing floor time.

There is much more to organizing the brain than just creeping and crawling. Yet, these movements are definitely part of the whole process.  So it’s good to know that there are endless ways to organize the brain while having a good time.

Here are some creative ideas that Brain Highways parents have shared with us. Enjoy.


Michelle Jackson Cooper

My son invented the “Nathan’s Aim and Fire Creeping Game.” He hangs a Nerf target on our door at the end of his creeping lane and lays a Nerf gun on the floor at the other end of the creeping lane. He creeps to the Nerf gun, and then fires a shot. If he hits the target, he creeps a lap back and forth to the gun again. If he misses the target, he does a few vestibular activities first, and then creeps again. He likes to see how many “hits” he can get in his creeping timeslot.

 

Aalia Riaz

Roll a set of dice and add the numbers. If it is an even number, you creep. If odd, you crawl. Depending on how challenging you want it to be, use 1 to 4 dice at a time.

Many times we have used a deck of cards to help chose between creep and crawl — black for creep and red for crawl.

A lot of times, it is math homework or online reading quizzes at the end of creep/crawl lanes. Saved a lot of precious time!

 

Eric Muller

For the artist in all of us, our daughter puts a large sheet of paper on the ground and starts a drawing, adding a little to it each time she turns the end. Another favorite is playing hangman with spelling words. For other card game ideas, we’ve done concentration and addition war.

 

Kay Nord

For the young boys (ages 3 to 5), in between creeping sessions, we sword fight using toy light sabers and keep our son’s mind awake  by having him spin both directions while “fighting.” Great fun to keep his creeping going, as well as a good proprioception/vestibular exercise :-)

 

Jill Showers

For young ones (ages 3 to 5), we use activity type books (like Highlights magazine) and have our son do parts of an activity after a complete creeping lap. This keeps him engaged.

 

Heather Olson

I hide gold treasure pieces around the house. When they find one, they put it in a little bag tied around their necks so they can keep crawling and find more. And when they venture into another room, I hide more pieces while they’re not looking (leprechauns are supposed to be tricky, right?)

 

Jennevieve Luther LaHaye

While we creep we like to read stories, play games like bingo, war, Battleship, and listen to music.

 

Tracy Keller Bremmer

At the end of each creeping “lap,” my daughter gets a penny for payment. She has to do a minimum of 40 laps (each lap is about 50 seconds). At the end of her session, she is able to go shopping at her creeping store, where we have little prizes that range in “price” from 40 to 80 pennies. She gets to count out her money and either buy something or save up for a bigger prize. These past two weeks, we did a “100 Penny Prize” if she did 100 laps in one day, and she won her prize today!

 

Bernadette McKinney

The child creeps as she makes a craft of her choosing, doing one piece at a time. I call it crafty creeping!

 

Cindy Griswold

One of our favorite things to do is go to an athletic center, rent a racquetball court and do our creeping and crawling. Once we have done/ worked hard there, we play/honor them by a round of dodgeball or some type of game. They love it because it’s different, and they have something to look forward to.

 

Lisa Moerner Paul

Our newest floor time adventure is……BINGO! The boys are loving it, and the time is racing by. Earning money while wrapping myelin rocks!!!!!!

 

Claudia Lucia McKinney

We play a version of operator. The kids start at one end of the house and their dad gives them a funny phrase or word. They creep to me at the other end of the house, repeat the word, and then I give them a new funny word or phrase. Then they creep back to dad. Sometimes the words or phrases build upon each other to make a funny story or paragraph.

 

Cora Bentley

When I do Brain Highways I ALWAYS listen to music. I’ve downloaded like 20 new songs.

 

Stephanie Gagnon Walmsley

Philip and I pass the time with creeping and our “Fast Track” competition. The time just flies by….. :)

 

Diana Weinfeld Scherer

We do Mad Libs during creeping — Clay has to identify words for the different parts of speech, then enjoys a funny, silly story.

 

Chris Morello

Creeping idea from Joey — “Mystery Toy:” Put a small toy or item into a paper sack and the child gets one clue per creeping/crawling lap that describes what is inside. After three clues and laps, the child gets one guess per lap until he or she gets it.

Creeping idea from Lucas — The child gets to use their finger strength to attach one clothespin per lap onto a checker. After 3 clothespins and laps, the child can spin the checker and see how long it can keep spinning during the subsequent lap(s).

 

Francis McKinney

Use play dough and try to create a character of yours. Write a sentence about an animal/person you think is fun or funny!!

 

Dana Frankel Mauro

Uno and Go Fish have been popular at our house lately! Annelise also made concentration cards with her addition math facts through 20 since she needs to memorize these by the end of the school year. I also bought the little mini peanut butter eggs to hide around the house, and she has to crawl to look for them. We have a little bag around her neck for her egg collection!

 

Tammy Weatherton

My boys are loving making paper airplanes. I bought them a book, and they are allowed to do one or two folds at the end of each lane. We now have several bags full of paper airplanes. At the end of the week, they test fly them and only keep their favorites (and we reuse the paper from the ones they don’t want to keep).

 

Stephanie Knight Scarato

My kids came up with “trick or treat” eggs. Fill plastic eggs with various treats and tricks. Treat eggs could have coins, pieces of candy, etc. Trick eggs could have you stand up and do 10 jumping jacks, an empty wrapper or a quick chore. Put all the eggs in a basket and open one for each lap you creep. One egg could have a grand prize in it, like $5 or a movie ticket.

I also use regular white paper and draw a shape on it. It might be a large or small triangle, a circle, long rectangle, squiggly lines, etc. My kids look at the shape and creep. While they creep, they think about what to add on to the shape to make a picture. They draw for about 10 seconds and then creep again. They keep adding on to the shape as much as they want. When finished with that picture, they get another shape.

 

Monica Going

We do our version of scratch and wins or hidden messages. I draw circles on white paper, use a white crayon to write something inside the circle — letters that spell words, monetary values, shapes for a match game etc. Then when you color in the circle after each lap with a felt pen (darker colors work best), the picture is revealed. Both boys love this and there are endless games you can come up with.

 

 

Challenging the Brain’s Natural Tendency

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Sometimes, we have to challenge the brain to see more than what it initially recognizes.

The brain loves to put “things” in categories.  So, when we see something similar, our brain is wired to associate it with something it already recognizes. For the most part, that’s a great plan.

But there are two major downsides to this natural tendency of the brain. First, labeling people to be “things” is limiting in that it negates the possibility that another perspective is equally possible.  Here are some examples:

  • A liar could be someone who isn’t confident how the truth will be received.
  • A selfish or manipulative person could be someone who hasn’t discovered how to get her needs met while also considering others.
  • A lazy person could be someone with a disorganized brain who is not able to compensate well enough to finish or do multiple tasks.
  • A hyperactive person could be someone with poor balance (since we balance more easily when we move).
  • An immature person could be someone with retained primitive reflexes and underdeveloped lower centers of the brain.

So, why do we tend to go with the first, more negative perceptions of such people?  Well, the brain also has a natural tendency to shine a spotlight on someone else, rather than on ourselves.

For example, it may be easier to view Tiffany as a liar than to reflect on how we respond to mistakes. It may be easier to view Luke as selfish or manipulative than to model and teach him how to respond in ways that consider everyone’s needs.  It may be easier to view Evan as lazy or hyperactive or immature than to explore what parts of brain development are incomplete and learn how to facilitate such changes.

Second, we may be limiting our own creativity when we don’t challenge ourselves to see beyond the “thing” that our brain initially recognizes.  Yet, the art of invention is based on envisioning something ordinary in a new and different way.

For example, my memory of a Cambodian refugee still rates as one of my favorite examples of doing just that.  After hearing this gentleman play incredible music from an instrument I did not recognize, I asked where he had bought it.  He smiled and explained that while it was a common instrument in Cambodia, once here, he couldn’t find the right kind of wood he needed to make it.

So what did he finally use?  A baseball bat.  Yes, he created that amazing sound from what was originally an old bat that likely spent much of its prior life lying in the dirt. To this day, I’m probably one of the very few people who think of beautiful Cambodian music when watching a ballgame.

But while the brain has a tendency to classify, we don’t have to just accept every first perception and every “thing” as absolute. We can sometimes challenge ourselves to think beyond the traditional viewpoint, the expected, the obvious.

And in doing so, who knows what kind of incredible changes we may then experience?

The Taking Care of Business Quiz

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If feels good to “take care of business.”

What is Taking Care of Business?

It’s a cortex way of getting everyone’s needs met. When using this approach, we:

  • Know what we are needing and wanting
  • Consider what others are needing and wanting
  • Keep both in mind when exploring options
  • Are specific and clear as to what we’d like to happen and why
  • Avoid being both defensive or offensive
  • Offer doables that move the situation forward
  • Ask instead of tell
  • Infuse humor and creative thinking whenever applicable

Quiz Directions

So, how well do you “take care of business?”

To find out, encourage your kids and other family members to take the quiz.  Read each situation listed in the quiz and the possible ways to respond. Choose the answer that is most similar to what you’d likely do if you were in that circumstance.

When you’re finished, read the answers and explanations to learn which do and do not reflect taking care of business and why.

To note: This quiz includes problems that both kids and adults often face. So, if a situation seems more applicable for a child or vice-versa, just modify it. For example, a child who does not want to take out the trash can be easily changed to be an adult who does not want to do a particular assignment at work.

Last, it’s important to remember: Taking care of business doesn’t mean that we automatically get the outcome we desire. But, hands-down, it’s still the most likely way we’ll move forward.

The Quiz

Situation 1: You’ve heard that someone is spreading gossip about you that is not true.

a) You bad-mouth that person, as well.

b) You do nothing, and try to avoid that person as much as possible.

c) You call that person out in front of others, demanding an apology.

d) You approach the person and say that you’re thinking she may have some misinformation and would like to clarify (and then do that).

 

Situation 2: You’re informed of a new rule when you take your father to his health clinic. Starting today, all patients must show a photo ID. However, your father did not bring any ID with him.

a) You reschedule another appointment (and ensure your father brings his ID).

b) You firmly point out that this rule is new, and you were not informed of it previously—so it should not apply today.

c) You acknowledge that you don’t want the person checking patients in to get in trouble by sidestepping the rule, but you’re frustrated since you’ve driven a long way and your father needs this appointment. So, you ask if there are other ways to verify that’s him (e.g. confirm his address, phone number, social security number) that’s already in the computer and . . . with a twinkle in your eye, use your hands to frame his face and say, “And this could be the photo ID.”

d) You tell the person checking patients in (who knows your father) that it’s silly to ask him for an ID since he already greeted him by name.

 

Situation 3: You’re sitting on the sidelines during the tournament, and it doesn’t appear that you’re ever going to get to play.

a) You sit stoically, but then break down (i.e. become upset) once you’re alone with your parents.

b) You act as though you don’t care while everyone else is being subbed in the game (don’t even watch all of the game).

c) You get up and demand that the coach gives you a chance to play, pointing out that you paid your money to be in this tournament, too.

d) You are fully engaged from the sidelines, watching what players on the field do that may have earned them time on the field. After the game is over, you ask the coach to give you three specifics to work on that may result in more playing time for you.

 

Situation 4: Someone has just criticized you in front of others.

a) You defend yourself.

b) You say something that is critical of that person.

c) You say nothing.

d) You respond by shining the spotlight back on that person and saying, “What were you hoping I’d do with that information?”

 

Situation 5: You don’t like the chore of taking out the trash, but that’s the job you’ve been assigned.

a) You whine whenever you have to do this.

b) You approach your parents and say: I know that we all need to pitch in to help around the house, but you may not know . . .I really don’t like taking out the trash. Is there another chore I could do instead of that one?

c) You do a terrible job (e.g. spill trash), hoping that your parents will think they need to assign this chore to someone else.

d) You do it, but you scowl to make it clear that you don’t like this job.

 

Situation 6: Various co-workers never clean up their dishes or trash after eating in the staff lounge.

a) You complain about those who don’t clean up to those who do.

b) You send an email to all your co-workers saying, “Due to budget cuts, we’ve had to lay off the maid for the staff lounge.”

c)  You send an email to everyone saying, “Due to budget cuts, we’ve had to lay off the maid for the staff lounge;)  So, how about we agree to a day where each of us is in charge of making sure all dishes are washed and all trash is cleared from the tables?  If you’re willing to do so, please email me which day(s) would work best for you to assume that role. Thanks.”

d) Pick up after those who leave their dishes and trash—and do not say a word.

 

Answers

Situation 1: You’ve heard that someone is spreading gossip about you that is not true.

Answer: d

This response does not judge the person or assume she was trying to “hurt” you by telling others false information. It also gives you a chance to clarify, without putting the other person on the defensive.

Responses “a” and “c” will only likely escalate the situation. Even if in response “c” you note what information was false, that part of the message won’t be heard since the approach is accusatory and focused on making the other person admit she was wrong.

Note that response “b” is only a possible solution if gossip truly does not bother you or whatever is being spread will not cause future problems (as a result of others hearing and acting on the misinformation) or if you can actually avoid that person. Those are a lot of variables, which is why this response may not actually take care of business.

 

Situation 2: You’re informed of a new rule when you take your father to his health clinic: Starting today, all patients must show a photo ID. However, your father did not bring any ID with him.

Answer: c

This response acknowledges that the person who works at the clinic needs to do his job as directed while also giving him an opportunity to meet your need (i.e. have your father keep his appointment).

Response “a” meets the need of the person checking patients in, but it does not meet your father’s need to keep his appointment that day.  Responses “b” and “d” do not acknowledge that the person who works at the clinic is trying to follow the new rules and will likely put that person on the defensive.

 

Situation 3: You’re sitting on the sidelines during the tournament, and it doesn’t appear that you’re ever going to get to play.

Answer: d

This response allows the coach to know what you’re needing and wanting while shining the spotlight on him to give you specific ways to improve.

Responses “a,” “b,” and “c” do nothing to move you forward (i.e. get more playing time). In fact, response “c” is just likely to put the coach on the defensive.

 

Situation 4: Someone has just criticized you in front of others.

Answer: d

This response sidesteps a need to defend yourself, while asking the person who made the comment to clarify his intent behind sharing the comment.  By doing the latter, the focus is immediately placed on the person who made the comment, rather than on you.

Responses “a” and “b” will only escalate the situation.  If you say nothing (response “c”), you may still antagonize the person if he thinks you’re ignoring him (and he will then likely criticize you more).

 

Situation 5: You don’t like the chore of taking out the trash, but that’s the job you’ve been assigned to do.

Answer: b

This response acknowledges that all family members need to contribute and help around the house, while opening the door to explore whether there’s any flexibility in who does what job.

Response “a,” c,” and “d” do not take care of business because there is no acknowledgment as to why you might be asked to do this chore. Moreover, if continual whining or scowling or passive aggressive behavior (i.e. doing a terrible job) ultimately gets you out of doing the chore, you have not only missed an opportunity to take care of business, but your brain now also incorrectly registers that such unproductive behavior may be helpful.

 

Situation 6: Various coworkers never clean up their dishes or trash after eating in the staff lounge.

Answer: c

This response begins by using humor. Yet, unlike “b,” this answer also specifically notes what isn’t being cleaned in the lounge and offers a solution/doable to improve the situation. This response additionally asks, rather than tells, co-workers to take responsibility. Last, it gives yet another doable by spelling out exactly how coworkers can respond if they agree to be in charge of clean-up for a day.

In contrast, response “a” (like “b”) does nothing to improve the situation.

Yes, response “d” ensures that the staff lounge is clean. But, over time, you may start to feel as though you’re the only one being responsible and, therefore, start to judge or resent those who continue to leave their mess, as well as those who do nothing to remedy the situation.

 

 

Viewing Challenges as Gifts

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Challenges are gifts . . . but only if we’re open to receiving them that way.

Challenges are really just opportunities to learn. With that mindset, we embrace struggles rather than fear them.

What do I mean?  Well, suppose a child has Tourette’s Syndrome, which is characterized by uncontrollable sounds (e.g. coughing) or movement (e.g. facial twitching) which are called tics.

Okay, you may be thinking: What could possibly be the upside of that?  After all, kids are just going to make fun of that child.

And you’re correct . . . there’s a high probability that child will be ridiculed at one time or another.

But while we can’t control whether our child has tics or how others treat him when they appear, we do have the power in how we teach our child to respond—and how we then respond, in kind. Those are the gifts that are waiting to be unwrapped.

For example, if our child has Tourette’s Syndrome, we can teach him to answer in a way that empowers him and leaves no room for feeling like a victim.  Such a response might be, “My twitches are just a tiny, tiny part of all of me. How can I help you see all the rest of me?”

We can teach our child to appreciate and value friends who see beyond a physical impairment.

We can create opportunities where our child befriends another child with a different kind of disability, giving our child the chance to be the one who models recognizing and honoring the core of that person.

We can teach our child that another person can only hurt us to the degree that we allow.

We can model an attitude that reflects a sincere belief that challenges are opportunities to learn, reflect, and build character.  Consider how that greatly contrasts with our modeling endless worry over how our child is going to feel if the dreaded scenario ever happens.

In short, worrying only amplifies a feeling of helplessness. If it actually influenced a positive outcome, then sure, we should worry all day long. But it doesn’t. It just creates more angst.  In fact, the movie star Michael J. Fox says he never worries for one main reason: If the bad “thing” eventually happened, then he will have lived through whatever he dreaded twice.

So, yes, there are going to be challenges in all of our lives. Count on it. But when such struggles arrive on our doorstep, why not teach our children to ask:  What gifts are wrapped inside this challenge?

 

Dalai Lama Parenting

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Although the Dalai Lama is not a parent, there is much we can learn about parenting from him.

The Dalai Lama recently visited San Diego, and he impressed every reporter who wrote about him.

And yet, when I read what the reporters admired, I couldn’t help but think . . . those very same actions are truly within reach of every parent.

So what did reporters note, and what can we glean from that?

1.  After every speech, the Dalai Lama took time to pay his respects to the security guards, ushers, and hotel doormen.

For parents: We can take time to acknowledge people who have helped our child in different ways.

2.  He was fully present while engaged with others.

For parents: We can set aside specific time each day to interact with our kids without any technological device in sight (let alone on).

3. He respected his nailed-down precise schedule, yet he also understood the need to sometimes change plans.  For example, when the Dalai Lama heard a donor who had helped to underwrite his visit was too ill to attend the panel discussion, he went to the donor’s side for a brief conversation and prayer.

For parents: We can respect family schedules, but also trust our intuition to know when changes are warranted.

4. He was never more than about 10 minutes late to an appointment the entire three, whirlwind days he was scheduled for events in San Diego.

For parents: We can model being on time, underscoring that we respect the time of others.

5. He talked about his temper (yes, the Dalai Lama says he has a temper).

For parents: We can be honest about our own short-comings and negate illusions that suggest we’re perfect.

6. He was affable, open, and spontaneous (everyone noted that is was fun to be around the Dalai Lama).

For parents: We don’t have to take everything so seriously. We, too, can be joyful!

But here’s what seemed to impress everyone the most about the Dalai Lama.  He didn’t just act a certain way in front of the cameras. He was the “real deal.”

The truth is . . . our kids are kinda like our own personal reporters. They observe what we do behind the scenes and form their own conclusions.

So, here’s what could happen if we did all of the above.

The Dalai Lama makes a return visit, and reporters once again portray traits such as paying respects, adhering to schedules (while also being flexible), being forthright about shortcomings, and acting cheerful as incredible, surprising ways to act.

Yet, as the rest of the world continues to be amazed by such poise and grace, our kids scratch their heads and go, “Huh? That just sounds like how everyone acts in our house.”

And from what I’ve read about the Dalai Lama, I think that response would make him smile.

 

Family Recess

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Research has proven that playing is good for the brain.

I often ask kids what they like best about school. Hands down, the most common answer is . . . recess.  Intuitively, kids know what science has now proven—both kids and adults need time to engage in pointless fun.

We used to call that “playing.” Yet in our current, overzealous, gotta-make-sure-our-kids-get-ahead-world, allocating time to play is often relegated to a back burner.

However, research on play shows that it makes us more adaptable, and it actually improves how our brain functions. For example, when we combine physical energy with a sense of joyfulness (i.e. when we play), we reinforce neurohormones.  And when we engage in activities that free us from having a set outcome, there’s a positive effect on our mood and perceptions of time.

In fact, according to researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, we need play in our lives as much as we need sleep.

So what is Brown’s definition of play? He says real play has no purpose. We do it for its own sake. It’s voluntary. We may even lose track of time or temporarily forget who we are in real life.

What’s the purest form of play? That’s when we improvise, where we make up whatever we’re doing as we go along.

So back to recess . . . where activities have little or no structure, where nothing is measured or ranked, where kids are free to be loud and move as quickly or slowly as they choose. Is there any surprise that kids fly out the classroom door as soon at that recess bell rings?

But then, that bring us to this question: Since playing has a natural appeal and is now proven to enhance the brain, why not create family recess time in our very own homes?

Yes, why not have the whole family take a break from household chores or homework or paying the

bills. . .  to now play together?

Note this is not just time for our kids to play. The idea of family recess is for us to play with them.

And guess what happens when we do? We discover that even though we’re adults, we never really lost our zest for play.

We prove that all the time at the Brain Highways Center. Here, parents enthusiastically engage in playful activities with their kids as part of our curriculum.  In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to decide who’s having more fun when observing, for example, a beanbag “fight” between a father and daughter.

So for my proposal of family recess, any unscripted, joyful movement works. Here are some ideas to get you started, but be sure to ask your kids for their input, too!

  1. Have pillow fights.
  2. Arm wrestle.
  3. Engage in (human) wheelbarrow races.
  4. Build a fort.
  5. Play tug-of-war.
  6. Create and run through an obstacle course.
  7. Climb a tree (yes, moms and dads can do this, too).
  8. Play freeze (or other) tag.
  9. Jump rope.
  10. Jump (barefoot) on bubblewrap.
  11. Jump on the bed (why not?).
  12. Wear a blindfold, and then try to squirt each other with plant sprayers.
  13. Toss water balloons, where one person takes a step back after each time the balloon is caught.
  14. Roll down a hill.
  15. Make a puddle of water, and see who can make the biggest splash.
  16. Build a mud structure.
  17. Play hide-go-seek (inside or outside).
  18. Play a variation of hide-go-seek: Only one person hides somewhere in the house while everyone else shuts their eyes. Then everyone tries to find that person. When a person discovers the hiding place, he or she now quietly hides there, too. As the game goes on, fewer and fewer people are left searching for where everyone else is hiding. (It adds to the fun when everyone tries to remain quiet as more and more people squeeze into the hiding place.)

Note that family recess time is not viewed as procrastination, where everyone is just putting off what needs to be done.  Rather, the mindset is one that suggests less work and more play is truly productive.

In the twenty-first century, that kind of thinking may be viewed as radical and revolutionary. But in our home, we can make such perspective a way of life.

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