Physical activity among today’s youth in the United States has been on a steady decline while learning disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and others are on the rise. Scientists have yet to draw a direct causal link to physical activity and learning disorders; however, research is showing an increasing correlation between physical activity and its affect on learning and behavioral disorders.
About a decade ago, Candace Meyer, a former educator of 20 years and Title I Federal Program Coordinator in Indiana, began to recognize the increasing need for physical activity to stimulate academic ability among her low-performing students in a Title 1 program.
“She saw a lot of smart children who were simply not functioning up to speed, who were struggling in the classroom and behaving poorly, but ultimately smart,“ says her son and business partner, S. Ryan Meyer. “Her original hypothesis was there had to be a root cause to these issues that wasn’t necessarily cognitive.”
In 1995, Candace began to test a personal theory that good physical balance underpins good cognitive performance. She developed a program, which is now called “MAZE,” that blends developmental gymnastics, balance exercises, and complex movements through a rotating set of protocols. These activities, which the team is coining “yoga for the brain,” range from full-body exercises to isolated eye movements.
“A lot of those kids have been unfairly labeled because they aren’t physiologically equipped for the classroom,” says Ryan when looking at the explosion of autism and ADHD in the childhood population. “We want to change that.”
In 2007, Ryan joined his mother to build two private Minds-in-Motion (MIM) centers in Louisville, KY and Carmel, IN to evaluate the link between early physiological development and more complex cognitive abilities to improve students’ measurable gains in academic, social, behavioral, and athletic skills. In the last several years, the centers have focused on gathering data and quantifying their approach with extremely positive results.
“Our latest study, which was comprised of all 300 children going through our two centers from mid-2009 to 2011, showed encouraging results. We looked at composite aspects of motor output, sensory input, auditory processing, visual skills, as well as scores on a standardized reading test,” says Ryan. “Every data group moved in a positive direction, which was very validating to see.”
Its two centers give students, typically from ages three to 14, an opportunity to run through improvement programs that elevate their cognitive abilities through a cutting edge approach that includes technology and complex gymnastics for two hours after school. “We focus on building better children from a structural standpoint. So the improved learning skills are just one of the positive by-products,” says Ryan.
While the before and after data points have measured increases in cognitive focus and ability, parents and teachers have also reported significant gains in the personalities of students who complete the “MAZE” program.
“Parents and teachers cite improvements in behavior, social awareness, and especially empathy as other key aspects, but these are obviously much harder to quantify,” says Ryan. “One principal in particular commented that she had seen a drop in discipline referrals to near zero once the whole elementary school implemented MIM.”
“This is just the tip of the iceberg, though,” says Ryan. The MIM team is working with Michael Wang, the Chief Innovation Officer at Georgetown University, to delve further into the growing potential that the “MAZE” program has to offer.
MIM also runs a professional development program, which allows educators to implement the program in their own classrooms, a few times a year. “We believe teachers should be trained on the physiology underpinning learning, so they can be aware of this very basic but hugely important part of the process, and thus become more effective teachers,” says Ryan.
“Over the past 30 years, there have been unprecedented technological advances and societal changes, many altering the way we raise children, and yet the structure and approach of our schools have remained relatively static,” he adds. “This is peculiar.”
Today, more than 2,000 classrooms are running “MAZE” daily with enormous success. MIM hopes to expand its research and product development to continue find ways to place physical education at the forefront of learning.
“If we can give parents and educators the diagnostic tools to see the issue as clearly as we see it,” says Ryan, “then some truly innovative things will be possible.”