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‘Waking our brains up’

Sensory room to meet the physical needs of kindergartners

Kindergartners sat on the classroom carpet on a recent Tuesday morning, ready to start a day filled with words, numbers, songs and crayons. But the chatty, energetic students knew they would also have time for a little jumping, stomping, flopping onto beanbags, balancing and tossing.

At West Elementary, students have a new sensory room where they can let loose and move.

Brandon Chan Jorge leads the way with Mayri Morales-Escobar and Aleah Brandos close behind

The kindergarten chatter included:

“I like the trampolines!”

“Me too!”

“I like the Sit ‘N Spin!”

They soon headed to the transformed classroom space where they moved from trampolines to beanbag toss, to balance boards to walking with cups on their feet and spinning on Sit ‘N Spins. 

The room was created after West Elementary kindergarten teachers expressed concerns about increased academic requirements in kindergarten resulting in less play.

Teachers Julie Merrill, Dawn Brunik and Karen Dunn, who planned the space, said they are already seeing the benefits of 15 minutes of movement every day– in addition to recess.

“We are waking our brains up,” Brunik tells her students as they play in the room after a quick breakfast in the room.

Andrea Jose walks the balance boards

Movement Benefits Learning

Merrill and Brunik attended a seminar called “Purposeful Play” led by educator Jacque Groendyk, who owns the company Brains in Motion, where they learned about the connection between movement and learning. Much of it they already knew: students sitting for long stretches aren’t able to pay attention, stay on task or learn what they need to.

“We are all seeing the articles about how academic kindergarten is and how kids are just not getting what they need,” said Merrill. “We know kids are sitting with tablets… They are not outside playing like we were when we were kids.”

But if students aren’t developing fine and large motor skills through physical activity, they suffer academically as well, she said.

“If you miss these developmental steps in your brain you can spend all kinds of money on academic interventions, but you are not going to make much progress,” Merrill said.

Since adding the sensory room, they are already seeing positive results.

“The biggest thing I see is their attention in class is so much better,” said Merrill, who breaks up a 90-minute block of literacy with time in the room.

Stephen Miles has fun in the new sensory room

Developmental Kindergarten Added Too

The room is part of a larger effort to meet the needs of the school’s littlest learners. West this year is also piloting a developmental kindergarten class — the only in the district — for students who have late birthdays or who aren’t quite ready for the rigors of kindergarten. While students, by law, must turn 5 by Sept. 1 to start kindergarten, parents can sign a waiver to enroll children with birthdays up unto Dec. 1. Several students with birthdays later than the deadline enroll each year. Developmental kindergarten is ideal for many of them because it is more play based and meant to be fall between preschool and regular kindergarten.

“They just need that extra year of development,” said Dunn, who teaches the class.“It all has to do with the fact that they aren’t yet academically ready. They will do great with extra time. It’s just that gift of time.”

While still a full-day program, students in developmental kindergarten will attend regular kindergarten next year.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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  1. There seems to be a disconnect between what the research shows and what we’re putting into practice. The experts interviewed here say that kindergarteners aren’t getting what they need because of the academic pressure. Instead of offering developmental kindergarten, we should really look at taking some of the academic pressure off of kindergarten. Child-centered, research-based programs need to be the leaders of this movement.


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