Sensory Development for Purposeful Movement

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Coordination can be one of the hardest concepts for students to learn, especially when their foundation for purposeful movement may not have been laid correctly. Children progress through a natural process of coordination development that can sometimes be ignored when a teacher is trying to teach dance steps. Learn how to work with nature in teaching your students how to be coordinated dancers by taking a look at the important part that Sensory Integration plays in learning to dance.

Basics of Sensory Development

During the first seven years of life, the process of organizing the sensations received through the nervous system and transmitted to the brain is taking place. The child experiences sensations, learns to recognize them, organizes this information in the brain, and attaches meaning to it.

“The greatest sensory motor organization occurs during an appropriate response to a sensation or stimulus.”* The brain needs to be organized, to have its act together, in order to put meaning to the sensory data coming in. “Within every child there is a great inner drive to develop sensory integration. Without this . . . none of us could have developed.”

Organization begins at the age of about one month with the appearance of purposeful movement. Sometimes this development does not occur the way nature intended. “We cannot take the place of nature and make everything all right, but we can do some things to help the child organize himself a little better.”

A lack of Sensory Integration can produce certain common symptoms which lead observers to say the person is “uncoordinated.” The main goal of the “Coordination for Ballet” manual is to show teachers how they can help their students replace random movement with “motor planning”, or purposeful movement, which is brought about by purposeful thought.

Probable benefits include better physical coordination, better ability to focus or concentrate on academics, more self-control of behavior and feelings, and for the dance class, a quicker, more accurate, more lasting response to corrections on how to do a movement.

Sensation Systems

Areas of the nervous system involved in receiving data and sending it to the brain are:

  1. Tactile (touch = data from the skin)
  2. Proprioceptive (muscular)
  3. Vestibular (inner ear = sense of gravity. This sense does the organizing of sensory data; it is the command center for organizing the brain.)
  4. Visual
  5. Auditory

(For now, we can ignore the autonomic nervous system, and the senses of taste and smell, as they are not essential to dance.)

The first three sensing systems on the list form the base for the organization of the brain, in developing purposeful thought and planned movement. The others assist, but are not as crucial to organizing the brain. The first two areas will give us a sense of self; our size, shape, place in space. The third organizes this sense of self into confidence and security.

Natural Progression of Coordination

When symmetry appears, it is a sign that the brain is being organized. It is the first observable coordination pattern. But, there are important steps to go through before even this can happen.

An overabundance of random movement shows a need to strengthen the beginnings of sensory integration.

Movement originates as random. It moves into purposeful movement as the person (infant or child) wants to accomplish a goal through physical movement–such as picking up an object, or moving from place to place, or learning to use tableware when eating. Random movement is unorganized, accidental, not planned, and will appear clumsy and uncoordinated. Students need to practice and strengthen the skill of motor planning—purposeful thought directing purposeful movement, the foundation of all coordination.

The purpose, the plan of the movement, must come from the person’s own brain. They must decide to do it, and consciously direct their own muscles. Seeing and copying someone else’s movement is not the same as planning it in your own mind. Students who are simply mirroring or following the teacher or a demonstrator, (or the smart one in the class!) are not really “learning” the material. The student must be the cause of his or her own movements, both mentally and physically.

Sensory Integration

Sensory Integration means that the brain puts together the data from all of our different senses, our ways of knowing what is going on in our world, and makes some kind of sense out of it. This data base tells us how to respond: to ourselves and our needs and wants, to other persons and objects in our environment, and to the environment itself. The more complete the data, and the better the integration of data, the better the coordination in all areas—physical, mental, emotional, and social—will be.

How Teachers Can Help

Random movement needs to be replaced with “motor planning“, or purposeful movement—movements that are directed by conscious thought processes.

Our first objective should be to have them plan and carry out movements that seem meaningful to them. This brings out another idea, sometimes ignored in the dance class: everything done in the class should have a purpose, a reason for being done.

This purpose should be something the student can relate to, and accept as a part of learning to dance at their level. Some examples of giving students reasons to do something:

“Demi pliés make our dancing muscles stronger.”

“Port de bras adds artistry and beauty to our dancing.”

Fit the reason to the age of the student. Most will appreciate knowing why they are doing something.

Matching imaginative story lines to movement can encourage the child to think about and plan a movement before doing it. This leads to smooth, coordinated movements. As you give purpose to movement with mime, drama, story lines, imaginative situations, learning physical skills should gradually become easier. It does take time.

Dance, by its very nature, is purposeful movement. Until everyday purposeful movement is firmly in place, it is very difficult to learn the more refined vocabulary of movements found in a dance class.

Any progress that we make with students physically will nearly always be paralleled by an increase in mental concentration and memory, and in the ability to learn academic skills. You are helping them to develop a skill they need, not only for dance class, but in many other areas as well. It’s well worth understanding and putting forth an effort to teach them.

From “Coordination for Ballet” by Ruth Brinkerhoff © The Ballet Source, 2017. All quotes are from “Sensory Integration and The Child” by A. Jean Ayres, PhD. (Occupational Therapist), © 1979.

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Sensory Development for Purposeful Movement

One Response

  1. A very useful blog. I understand the reasoning behind distinguishing “random movement” from motor planning however the description could be misleading as unconscious movement in young infants is an essential part of the developmental process and not as “random” as it might appear.
    “Probable benefits include better physical coordination, better ability to focus or concentrate on academics, more self-control of behavior” – most definitely! – my work is focused on evidencing these aspects. I really like your objectives Kim & hope to connect with you further.

    Ali Golding January 17, 2016 at 5:55 AM #

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