Sensory-Motor Reading Readiness for School

Sensory-Motor Reading Readiness for School

Not meant as medical advice, these guidelines by Dr. Susan Johnson are intended to help parents and early-childhood educators notice movement integration and development in the young child.  Interested in more about movement and child development? If you missed our  2015 Movement in Education Teacher Development Intensive, in Pacific Palisades, CA, you can attend one of our workshops here.

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True reading readiness (as opposed to forced reading “readiness”) is a biological phenomenon* and requires that a child has passed a number of benchmarks of sensory-motor integration – which is an aspect of healthy brain development.  Many of these benchmarks have been passed when a child is able to do the following:

  • Pay attention and sit still in a chair for at least 20 minutes
  • Balance on one foot, without her knees touching, and in stillness, with both arms out to her sides – and count backwards without losing her balance
  • Stand on one foot, with arms out in front of him, palms facing up, with both eyes closed for 10 seconds without falling over
  • Reproduce various geometric shapes, numbers, or letters onto a piece of paper with a pencil while someone else traces these shapes, letters or numbers on her back
  • Walk on a balance beam
  • Jump rope
  • Skip

If children can’t do these tasks easily, their vestibular and proprioceptive (sensory-motor) neural systems are not yet well-integrated, and chances are they will have difficulty sitting still, listening, focusing their eyes, focusing their attention, and remembering letters and numbers in the classroom.

Support for sensory-motor integration comes not from flash cards or video games…but from the following activities:

Physical movements such as

• Skipping                                          • Running
• Hopping                                          • Walking and hiking
• Rolling down hills                         • Clapping games
• Playing catch with a ball              • Circle games
• Jumping rope                                 • Climbing in nature

…as well as fine motor activities to strengthen important motor pathways, such as

• Cutting with scissors                     • Beading
• Digging in the garden                    • Drawing
• Kneading dough                             • String games
• Pulling weeds                                  • Sewing
• Painting                                            • Finger knitting

By contrast, watching television or playing video or computer games [or on iPads] are extremely poor sources of stimulation for sensory-motor development and actually interfere with the healthy integration of the young nervous system by keeping the child’s nervous system in a state of stress.  The “flight or fight” system is activated and maintained.

Children who have difficulties reading and writing often also have

• a poorly developed sense of balance
• difficulty making eye contact
• difficulty tracking or following with their eyes
• trouble distinguishing the right side of their body from the left
• difficulty sitting still in a chair
• difficulty locating their body in space
• poor muscle tone exemplified by a slumped posture
• a tense or fisted pencil grip
• “flat feet” (collapsed arches)
• oversensitivity to touch
• overactive sympathetic nervous system (“flight or fight”), thus have extra sensitivity to the stimulant effects of sugar, chocolate, lack of sleep, changes in routines, watching television, playing computer or video games.

Sometimes these children have difficulties in their peer relationships because they are using their mind and eyes to help their bodies navigate in space, and miss the non-verbal social cues from their playmates.

Dr. Johnson has seen children diagnosed with AD/HD or learning disabilities “miraculously” improve when they are taken out of an “academic” kindergarten or given an extra year in a developmental kindergarten that emphasizes movement, play, and the integration of their sensory-motor systems.

*On reading readiness as a biologically-based development: we would never label a child with a “disability” if they were slow to lose their first tooth, or begin menstruation…and reading is similarly linked to a child’s unfolding biology.  Relax!!!

c. Susan Johnson, M. D.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.  For more about Susan R. Johnson, MD, FAAP, and her practice in Colfax, California here at  You and Your Child’s Health.

Visit our workshop page for upcoming programs.

For developmental movement games to play with young children, see our book and CD Games Children Sing and Play.


  1. Susan reminds us here that in the early years of childhood (from birth to about age 7) each child needs lots of movements, large and small, before it’s time for reading. Preparation for learning is lots of play and movement in the early years and beyond. Similarly, preparation for athletics is lots of the same play and movement through the eleventh year and beyond. Imaginative movement and time in nature is best. So, dear parents and teachers, let’s get moving! Can you balance like a flamingo? Jump like a frog? Roll like a log?

  2. This is interesting, where could we read more about the scientific info behind this theory?

    • Thank you for your comment and question. My go-to source for early childhood development is Sally Goddard Blythe. She has a number of excellent books, including The Well Balanced Child which is one of the best. She’s written a section of our new book coming out in January, Games Children Sing and Play that explains how the movements and movement play of the young child are essential to build the capacities for learning in school and in life.

      Best wishes, Valerie

  3. I love this concept. And it really hits home for me:
    For me it took even longer to learn how to read. I couldn’t read until I was about 12 years old. Despite all sorts of tutoring, and endless hours of “special attention”. It just seemed to be physically impossible for me to learn how to read fluently. Then over the course of maybe 3 months it was like some part of my brain got wired up in the right way. I went from not being able to read simple early reading books to being able to read full novels. I went on to do well in high school, and earn a double science degree with honors at a good university.
    So parents, if your kids seem to be stuck, and no matter how much effort you put into it they just can’t seem to learn to read fluently. And they seem like bright children in all other respects. Relax. Give them as much confidence building as you can that everything is going to work out. They will learn to read when their body matures and whatever neural pathway develops that is missing.

    • Thanks, Justin, I’m sure your own experience will help others understand that life isn’t a race, that there’s no finish line, and certainly no prize for getting “there” first. Best wishes to you, and thanks for your post.

  4. I find this fascinating! Do you know of any research that shows the effect of movement on the adult brain? For example, if one missed out n a lot of physical activity and interaction as a child, would those same activities that prepare children for reading actually help the adult form neurological pathways, too?

    • See also “The Brain That Changes Itself” for case studies of adult brains able to relearn movement/language/balance after debilitating stroke or accident.

      • A wonderful book! Thanks, Kathy.

  5. Dear HomeSchoolingMomma,

    Yes! Absolutely! There are lots of studies on movement and the brain’s cognitive functioning for adults. I study this especially for my work with the elderly (in our sister company, Agile Aging and post on the twitter @AgileAging). What’s especially fascinating is that the essential movement senses of vitality, touch, balance and self-movement that the young child develops in the first few years of life actually weaken in the elder adult in the reverse order they integrate in the child! For example, when an older person begins to move less, their balance begin to go (partially as a result, the causes are many). Elders are touched less and less other than medically, and their sense of life weakens. It is the natural circle of life, yet MOVEMENT can help maintain these senses much longer, for all of us. Also, keep in mind that when we do something new, or change a habit (brush teeth with the opposite hand, learn a new language, do something backwards) we are creating new neural pathways. So, keep it up, and keep moving!

  6. Interested for young and old

  7. Valerie, I would love to be your disciple, especially because you are helping the young and old!! One day I hope! I am a Waldorf certified teacher but currently home with my two little girls but desperately hoping to move into the realm of movement as a practitioner and eventually a teacher. My background is high school science but I have felt a true calling towards the study (and importance) of movement especially in these coming generations. Right now I find a lot of further education in this realm cost-prohibitive (aside from personal study, and my acquisition of many, many books, with the list growing!). Any advice you may offer me? Thank you sincerely!

    • Hi, Kelly,
      Thank you for your comment, questions, and seeking. Where are you located? I might be able to point you somewhere for some resources. Follow your dream!

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