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Exercise for the body and brain

Judy Mackie joins a brain-building workshop to help children learn more easily

To someone from the taciturn north-east of Scotland, hearing a child declare "I am ace!" to his classmates is likely to prompt a sharp intake of breath. But when that child has been encouraged to do so within the context of a Feel Good Factory workshop, thoughts of him getting above himself are banished.

Standing tall, with thumbs up, the rather shy boy treats the opportunity as a gift, not as a chance to gloat. It is a simple but effective reward for good "whole brain performance", which his P3 classmates at Airyhall Primary school in Aberdeen treat with reverence.

Engaged by the workshop's theme of outer space, each "astronaut" aspires to this ultimate accolade, which is played out at the core of the "mother ship" (inside the circle painted on the gym floor).

Raising self-esteem is only one element of the I Am Ace workshops which Jenny Thomson and Val Munro (who are both qualified PE teachers) have developed as part of their Feel Good Factory approach. Their overall aim is to improve children's ability to learn and this they do through a range of activities derived from shiatsu, brain gym, movement education and the Alexander technique.

"Like accelerated learning theorists Trevor Hawes and Alistair Smith, we believe that whole brain integration - good communication between the right and left sides - is important in preparing the way for learning. Certain physical activities have been shown to stimulate whole brain integration and we use these as the basis of our workshops," Ms Munro says.

The four weekly 40-minute workshop sessions begin with an explanation of how wonderful the brain is, how it works and how we learn. For P3-5s this is done within the context of space travel; P5-7 classes use a computers theme.

At Airyhall Primary, P3 class teacher Lizzie Paton is impressed. "Val and Jenny have pitched it at the right level. They use fun ctivities to reinforce what they are saying. To demonstrate the amount of signals the brain sends around the body at lightning speed, they had the children running around the room trying to tag as many people as possible within a short time."

Exercises such as "space walks" - groups of children clutching hoops moving slowly around the room - encourage eye contact, co-ordination and concentration by challenging the "space pod captains" to guide their "crews" across the floor without colliding with any of the others. Their absorption in their task makes it clear their imaginations are fully engaged.

Exercises which encourage both sides of the brain to communicate play a prominent role in the workshops. The pupils are taught routines which have them touching their left foot with their right hand and so on. They show significant improvements with practice.

Following the shape of a large figure eight with their eyes is another technique. "We explain how taking brain breaks like this can help them improve their performance," Ms Thomson says. "The idea is to equip them with a variety of tools which they can practise whenever they feel the need."

Ms Paton regularly uses some in the classroom. "We learned that rubbing our brain button (a shiatsu spot just below the collar bone) is an excellent way of stimulating the blood and oxygen flow to the brain. So when the class is showing signs of flagging, I get them to practise that technique."

When noise levels start to rise, she calls for calming hook-ups, which involve crossing the arms and legs and breathing deeply.

"There's been a lot of research into these techniques and my colleagues and I are finding that they really do make a difference in terms of focusing the mind and improving concentration," she says. "The I Am Ace workshops are an excellent practical application of the theory we've been hearing about from visiting experts."

Feel Good Factory, tel 01224 324736

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