For three months researcher Coralee McLaren watched 20 kindergarten children play in the Bloorview School—some with disabilities and some without—to study the relationship between how they moved and their physical environment.
Recent brain research shows that when children are free to move naturally they interact with objects and features of their environment in a way that promotes learning.
But what does this mean for children with disabilities whose mobility is restricted?
“What we discovered was that not only do the physical features of the class elicit creative ways of moving, but movement itself, and the children’s interactions and how they move together, generates new ways of moving,” says Coralee, a professional dancer who was studying the children for her PhD thesis in nursing. “By watching the other children move, or being caught up in the physical energy of their movement, the children with disabilities were drawn into different groupings and found non-habitual ways of moving where they experimented with their bodies.”
Even when children aren’t moving, research suggests that watching peers at play can trigger brain responses similar to those activated when children are playing themselves.
The findings could have implications for how classrooms are designed and provide additional evidence for the benefits of inclusive education.
Coralee, who watched and filmed the kindergarten children’s unguided play and interviewed them about it, was fascinated by how the children used objects to change the way they moved and their environment.
For example, they modified a pretend cockpit chair in a mock space station set up by teacher Paul Alcamo.
“It was a scooped chair with a base that was detachable to give you the feeling you’re flying in a rocket,” Coralee says. “When they discovered they could take the chair apart they turned it into all sorts of things. They’d get rid of the base and make a teeter totter and hook up levers and straps, and they’d tip the seat like it was a swivel chair, and they’d use the base to climb over and around. Some of the children that used wheelchairs and walkers abandoned them and crawled, using the floor and the shelves to propel themselves around the space, to integrate with their peers and experiment with the chair.”
In addition to the pretend centre, Coralee looked at how other physical elements of the class—the chairs, the space between tables, the pathway that connects two sides of the class and the wheelchairs and walkers themselves—generated movement.
“I asked one little non-disabled boy ‘If you had a choice to move any way that you wanted to in the class, how would you move?’ He said he wanted a wheelchair like his friend because he can move so fast and I can’t move that fast. The chair became a non-issue because it was the speed and capability of his friend that the boy found remarkable.”
Coralee and scientist Barbara Gibson just received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to co-lead an interdisciplinary team of researchers on a three-year study that will use artistic and scientific methods to build on this doctoral research. Coralee is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Bloorview Research Institute, housed at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto.
In the first year of the Moving Together study, researchers will develop a dance-play event that integrates objects and choreographed movements to try to elicit some of the creative encounters Coralee observed in Bloorview's reverse-integration kindergarten. Children’s muscle and brain responses will be tracked.
In the second year, children at a school for physical disability will participate in this dance event with peers without disability.
In the third year, the dance-play event will be performed by children with diverse abilities in an immersive live theatre lab at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “We’ll measure neurologically and physiologically what’s happening with children when they’re moving in this space in an artistic way, and we’ll also measure the responses of the audience.”
Coralee says the findings could inform how integrated classrooms, hospitals and medical clinics are designed. “We want to tease out this social piece of how movement itself incites movement. What is it about children moving together that starts to change their movement? How do children with disabilities start to move differently simply by being integrated and moving with their peers?”
Illustration by Jana Osterman.