Information Age Education
   Issue Number 80
December, 2011   

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Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education:
Movement as Primary in Learning Processes

Rebecca R Burrill, EdD
Educational Therapist and Movement Director

Primacy of Movement

Movement as the foundation for our brain’s organization, development, and learning has been a part of educational approaches since the late 60’s. The work of Jean Ayres was and still is in the forefront of this approach (Ayres et al 2008). Ayres’ work as an occupational therapist and developmental psychologist underscored the function of the vestibular system—triggered by physical movement in the gravitational field—as the foundation for motor-sensory-perceptual integration, more commonly known as sensory integration (Robbins 1977).

The vestibular is a part of the body’s proprioceptive system, which informs us about body movement in space, weight (gravity), and time. The first cranial nerve to myelinate in utero is the vestibular/cochlear, which registers movement, vibration, and tone in muscles and sound. In the beginning the fetus’ perceptual system is bathed and stimulated by the motion and sound resonance of the mother’s body and voice. This in turn triggers reflexive and spontaneous movement, which stimulates the whole motor-sensory-perceptual feed back loop of brain organization, development, and learning. In the beginning, to move is to perceive. All of our other senses are organized on this fundamental movement-sound neuronal base.

As a dancer with training in theory and practice in dance/movement therapy, I orient my educational approach to child development and learning through a psychobiology lens. We must move first to perceive our three-dimensional world in the forces of space, weight, and time (Bainbridge-Cohen 2008). Through this movement we build inner precepts or images that match the outer world. These are prototypes of experience, sometimes called cognitive universals (Dissanayake 1995). This movement-sound based precept building is the biological part of psychobiological process (Burrill 2010).

This fundamental movement-sound unity is exemplified in the nonverbal communication between mother and infant, such as when baby makes high-pitched sounds and mother raises her eyebrows and shoulders in matching movements (Dissanayake 2001). This is a mirroring process. Mirroring has been a fundamental technique in dance/movement therapy, and more recently a focus in neuroscience (Berrol 2006). This ‘mirroring’ between mother and infant is a subjective, emotionally imbued meaningful process that happens through the movements of facial expression, body gesture, muscle tone, and voice intonation. This emotionally imbued meaning making is the psychological part of psychobiological process.

Emotionally imbued biological precepts drive the engine that builds subjective images of memory, dream, analogy and metaphor of the inner personal world (Hannaford 2005). The communication of the infant mother dyad is also cross-modal—translations of feeling experience from one sense to another, known as synesthesia. Cross-modal integration and association become a basis for aesthetic perception and intelligence. Cognitive universals become proto-aesthetic elements that naturally and spontaneously amplify, frame, and evoke emotional-feeling-imaginative meaning (Dissanayake 1995). This perspective points to the earliest brain organization of the motor-sensory-perceptual process as the basis for language and the aesthetic expression of movement and sound—dance and music (Burrill 2001).

The refinement of focus specifically on the primacy of movement and sound and their aesthetic counterparts—dance and music—is corroborated by a recent doctoral study on emotional intelligence and the arts by Susan Clark, an associate of Xan Johnson (a subsequent contributor to this series of articles). The study measured emotional intelligence scores in relationship to arts programs provided to fifth graders. Dance and music were the art forms with the highest positive correlation effecting scores for emotional intelligence (

A Movement Based Research Study

I conducted qualitative emergent-design doctoral research in which I introduced dance and art-making as activity choices two times a week in a public pre-school (Burrill 2001). These activities were improvisational and spontaneous—child centered—providing a high degree of freedom of movement and expression. They were compared with morning circle time, an activity where movement was highly controlled and teacher directed.

The comparison was done though a dance/movement therapy assessment tool—The Kestenberg Movement Profile (KMP). The KMP ( is psychobiological, recognizing that a biological pattern of muscular behavior generates a corresponding psychological meaning. For example, the biological-muscular experience of lightness-of-weight, ordinarily generates psychological meanings associated with happiness, ease, humor, inspiration, fickleness, giddiness and so forth.

The KMP developmentally delineates biological needs and drives for survival, emotional-feeling dispositions, and the sense of self in relationship to the environment, others, and learning (Kestenberg Amighi et al 1999). I used the KMP to give insight into the nonverbal, subjective experience of the children. I asked the question: Did the educational environment foster or hinder the creative process of learning?

I used the KMP innovatively to assess group movement of the children in the three activities—dance, art and circle time (Burrill 2001, 2011). My final interpretation of results hinged on scores for the following:

Biological age

Animated vs. deanimated emotion


Ego-conscious control of behavior

  • The biological age being expressed in both the dance and art activities was age appropriate. For circle time the biological age was regressed, mostly expressing needs and drives for the first and second years of life. This indicates behaviors resembling developmental delays.

  • Full animation of emotion was being expressed in dance and art, whereas in circle time there was an above normal amount of deanimated emotion—an indication of inner emotional conflict and feelings of unsafety and distrust of the environment.

  • The dance and art activities expressed balance of self-feelings, while circle time expressed an imbalance of closed, isolated and defensive feelings, an indication of feelings of low self-esteem.

  • Lastly the KMP delineates the maturation of ego-conscious control of behavior. The scores for dance and art indicated that these activities allowed the children to express themselves with the more unconscious and instinctual spontaneity that is appropriate for their age (Blomberg & Dempsey 2007). Whereas circle time scores indicated the opposite.

Movement, Homeostasis, and Learning

As an educator I see these results in terms of the role of homeostasis in early learning and development. Homeostasis is the maintained balance, or matching between self and world. This is understood to be a biological, perceptual, emotional, and rational process (Damasio 1999).

In order for children to learn creatively, they must feel safe and accepted for their own natural learning processes (Perry 2009). Children need learning environments that are age-appropriate so that homeostasis can stabilize and creative learning be fostered.

The above results indicate that the high control of movement and expression in morning circle time was disruptive to homeostasis. It seems that the children were being required to use a level of motor-sensory-perceptual organization and ego conscious control that was not age-appropriate. This caused biological confusion (regression), and anxiety and distrust of themselves and their environment. It seems that internally the children’s energy and focus were struggling to maintain homeostasis rather then being channeled for creative learning (Perry & Pollard 1998).

Results also indicate that freedom of movement and expression, in their aesthetic forms of dance and art-making, allowed the developing children to feel safe and accepted in their own natural leaning processes. This stabilized homeostasis and therefore fostered the creative process of learning.

Results also point to the highly influential and delicately balanced relationship between the educational environment and the children’s inner learning processes. Children are especially vulnerable to their environmental influences because they are building a neuronal template for homoeostasis, which needs to be patterned to encourage later learning and development (Perry & Pollard, 1998).


Freedom of movement and expression are old themes in the democratic and child centered project of progressive education. That aesthetic intelligence is intrinsically entwined with the biology of movement—most fundamentally through dance and music—is rarely understood or acknowledged. Dance is the least represented of the arts in public schools. Arts in general are considered an expendable frill; and if not, they are commonly thought to be items to be integrated into the 3 R’s. Rather, the arts are developmentally precursors and fertile ground for the integration of the three R’s and literacy skills based learning. Arts are the fundamental in which movement and dance are primary.


Ayres, J., Robbins, J., McAfee, S. & Pediatric Therapy Network. (2008). Sensory integration and the child: Understanding hidden sensory challenges. Torrance, CA: Western Psychological Services.

Bainbridge-Cohen, B., Nelson, L. & Smith, N. S. (2008). Sensing, feeling, and action: The experiential anatomy of body-mind centering. Northampton, MA: Contact Editions.

Berrol, Cynthia F. (2006). Neuroscience meets dance/movement therapy: Mirror neurons, the therapeutic process and empathy. The Arts in Psychotherapy 33, 302–315.

Blomberg, H. & Dempsey M. (2007). Rhythmic movement training level one: RMT and ADD/ADHD. AND Rhythmic movement training level two: The limbic system and RMT. Course Manual for Training Workshops. Melbourne, Australia: RMT International.

Burrill, R. (2001). The effects of teaching/learning environments on the creative process of learning evidenced through a movement analysis tool: The Kestenberg movement profile. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses databases. (UMI No. 3012118) and University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Burrill, R. (2010). The primacy of movement in art making. Teaching Artist Journal, 8(4), 216-228.

Burrill, R. (2011). Movement, art, and child development through the lens of an innovative use of the Kestenberg Movement Profile in American Journal of Dance Therapy, Vol 33, no. 2, Dec 2011.

Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co.
Dissanayake, E. (1995). Homo Aestheticus. WA: University of Washington Press.

Dissanayake, E. (2001). Becoming homo aestheticus: Sources of aesthetic imagination in mother-infant interactions. SubStance, 30 (1 & 2), 85-103.

Hannaford, C. (2005). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Salt Lake City, UT: Great River Books.

Kestenberg Amighi, J., Loman, S., Lewis, P., & Sossin, M. (1999). The meaning of movement: Developmental and clinical perspectives on the Kestenberg Movement Profile. New York: Gordon and Breach Publishers.

Perry, B., & Pollard, R. (1998). Homeostasis, stress, trauma, and adaptation: A neurodevelopmental view of childhood trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7 (1), 33-51.

Perry, B. (2009, August 5). Relationships and learning. Retrieved from

Robbins, J. (1977). Vestibular Integration: Man's Connection to the Earth. Somatics. Autumn.

Rebecca R Burrill

Rebecca R Burrill is an educational therapist, movement educator, dancer, and visual artist. She received her doctorate in studies focusing on the relationships between movement, brain evolution, child development, art making, and learning. She is trained in a dance-movement therapy assessment tool—The Kestenberg Movement Profile, and in occupational therapy related systems such as Brain Gym, Rhythmic Movement Training, and Body-Mind Centering. She works in private practice as an educational therapist and movement educator with all ages. She is a certified elementary educator and is artistic director of improvisationally based dance programs in schools, K-12. She recently performed a solo dance piece—Dancing the Dunes—linking languages of nature with languages of art, exemplifying her work of linking human intelligence with primal human relationship with Nature as instrumental in the development of language and art. Through this understanding she seeks to renew human engagement with the primary creative intelligences of movement, sound, feeling, imagination and ecological conscious and their natural, organic, empowering and integrative capacities. Contact information:

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