Humans move before learning to think or speak. We reposition our bodies constantly to explore and understand our environment. Any obstacle we encounter grabs our attention, and we attempt to overcome it long before we have words to describe what we're doing.
As we grow, our motion is more specifically prescribed, but just as integral to being human. The obstacles we face grow exponentially more challenging, and our motivation to overcome each obstacle is a measure of our ability to stay engaged.
The tasks and challenges we face in our daily lives require us to use an array of abilities; the degree of difficulty experienced in meeting them is dictated by the individual's mental acuity, physical strength, skill level and the ability to execute the plan. As we meet and overcome each obstacle, we begin to create a cognitive scaffold upon which future challenges might be accomplished.
This article will explore how the use of a physical obstacle course in a gymnastics setting fosters the ability of both typical and special needs children to meet the challenges/obstacles of everyday life.
Active and Working Memory
Recently I watched a men's gymnastics squad warm up on tumble track (a modified trampoline, created for lengthy tumbling passes, with a long, narrow bed with min/mod spring for repulsion). The leading gymnast rehearsed the same pass over and over. As an elite athlete, his tumbling pass was intricate and presented significant "obstacles" for successful completion. Each skill was complex and multi-stepped, yet the gymnast appeared almost casual as he flowed from one skill to the next. He seemed unaware of the level of difficulty, yet cognizant of the need to complete the pass precisely, as he combined the necessary power, speed and timing to hit each mark.
I asked him what he thought about as he rehearsed and practiced his skills in the tumbling pass. He replied, "Nothing really, school stuff. It's only when something goes wrong that I think about what I'm doing."
The brain meets challenges and overcomes obstacles by experiencing and learning specific functions. Repeating these functions affords a degree of familiarity and expertise. The brain acts like a computer where information is acquired and stored; everything learned, sensed and experienced is logged in to this computer and as the files interact, new files are created.
When nothing "goes wrong" in the gymnast's routine, his brain simply pulls up information from the "files" of his previous experiences. This is defined as "active memory."
The overwhelming majority of time, human existence is lived in active memory. It is what makes us creative and musical - able to memorize a melody from a song from our youth and recall decades later where we were when we first heard it. Humans develop active memory in order to respond to novel situations with an appropriate balance of problem-solving and rehearsed understanding. Active memory is ongoing and develops on a continuum; riding a bicycle with dad helps the brain to understand changing directions, distance, speed and gravity; years later, the same individual draws on this experience when learning to drive a car.
Working memory, on the other hand, is the ability to be present in the moment which is currently unfolding. Working memory is what the gymnast uses when something "goes wrong." It requires an alert awareness of the environment and a reflexive, active participation in problem solving. Learning occurs in working memory. What occurs during this time, an individual will most likely be able to recall in vivid detail.
To illustrate the difference between active and working memory, think of your daily commute to work. You make lane changes and note traffic flow, listen to music and plan out your day. You are using active memory as you drive. However, when a pickup truck swerves into your lane, what is already known (active memory) will not suffice. Your working memory allows you to evaluate the situation, decide on a course of action and carry through with it.
If a child is intrigued by climbing, he will be drawn to a ladder. If a child loves bouncing, he will be drawn to springboards, trampolines, tumble tracks and pits. The child is constructing his own sensory wish list. Through a predictable process of engaging working memory, the child problem-solves the novelty of the ladder. By continuing the process of scaling ladders via repetition, the child demonstrates mastery and experiences success. Success for all people is part of the internal construct which creates our individual scaffold. From small successes, the structure on which further skills are built is strengthened. The process, not the product helps define self-worth and self-esteem.
In our program, young gymnasts play "dragonball" on the trampoline. As the gymnast bounces, one or more large therapy balls are introduced onto the trampoline. The gymnast must avoid the balls while performing skills. As the gymnast bounces, the ball rolls toward the depressed area of the trampoline's surface. In essence, the dragonball follows the bouncer. The gymnast must attend to her movements as well as to the ball(s) while performing the skill(s). This develops multi-sensory awareness and processing, which is essential for advanced gymnastics. Novice gymnasts first learn to avoid the ball; more seasoned gymnasts perform sequential, multi-progression skills while avoiding multiple balls.
For recreational gym coaches and recreational programs, the use of an obstacle course allows a motivated instructor a functional method to engage the child in developing working memory.
The shape and make-up of a course should be:
- rectangular (in order to include changes in direction),
- composed of 6-10 connected steps (in order for the gymnast to develop sequential thinking and thereby sequential motor planning),
- where each step of the course is connected to the previous and following steps (so the child never touches ground),
- with random gym equipment (mats, shapes, ladders, bars, ropes, swings, trampolines, etc.) so the gymnast becomes familiar with the environment on a developmental scale, including
- one or more unstable surfaces (trampoline, see-saws, bounce houses, etc.) in order for the child to develop tolerance for random gravitational challenges.
The selection and placement of each obstacle in relation to the previous and following obstacles should challenge working memory as the child encounters and must solve novel problems. Though at times randomly selected, each component of the obstacle course demands attention to motor planning, sensory processing and organizational thinking and should address function via sequential motor planning, developing praxis, and the coordination of the brain's visual-perceptual systems. Constant changes in the environment allow the brain to rehearse novel motor planning sequences while perceiving visual sensory input. In combination, both lead enable the child to consider what choices are possible and assemble a response to the changing environment.
Gene Hurwin, MA, OTR/L, is owner/director of BIG FUN Therapy and Recreational Services in Los Angeles. His company provides gymnastics and recreational services to children with special needs, and offers certification for coaches on how to teach gymnastics to children with special needs. Currently, the BIG FUN Method is used in over 40 gyms and in 6 states. Mr. Hurwin lectures nationally for several organizations, presents for USA Gymnastics, and can be heard twice a month as host of Autism Streets on Autism One Radio.