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by Dr. Susan Johnson

Not meant as medical advice, these guidelines by Dr. Susan Johnson are intended to help parents and early-childhood educators judge reading readiness for school by observing movement integration and development in the young child. 

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.  (Read more about early movement development in Why We Rock Babies.)

Recommended Activities

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.

Indicators of reading readiness difficulties

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.

Sensory motor integration in the young child indicates reading readiness

Movement matters

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!!!

© 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.

Watch our video webinar, “Movement Games for Sensory Integration” on Vimeo.

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

Interested in learning more? Join our online Mentoring program to learn how to create a enhanced sensory-movement experience in your classroom or home.

Links for all the videos in our Master Class for Early Childhood Educators.

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