Lebanon’s Kindergartners Get Moving to Learn

Six years ago, Tammy Oliver, then the Physical Education teacher at Byars Dowdy Elementary, piloted a unique program which changed the way kindergarten students are taught in the Lebanon Special School District.  On the surface, the SMART program (Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training) developed by Dr. Lyelle Palemer along with the Minnesota Learning Resource Center (www.themlrc.org), incorporates the development of gross and fine motor skills along with reading and math readiness skills.

Six years ago, Tammy Oliver, then the Physical Education teacher at Byars Dowdy Elementary, piloted a unique program which changed the way kindergarten students are taught in the Lebanon Special School District.  On the surface, the SMART program (Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training) developed by Dr. Lyelle Palemer along with the Minnesota Learning Resource Center (www.themlrc.org), incorporates the development of gross and fine motor skills along with reading and math readiness skills. With a closer look you will find the learning activities taking place in the elementary gymnasiums of the Lebanon Special School District, after the pledge has been recited and announcements are made, go beyond physical education and rote review.  They stimulate the brain promoting a calmness and greater focus for the day’s lessons along with “reinforcing everything the classroom teacher is teaching in a fun atmosphere,” according to Tammy Oliver.

Many people assume that because a child is old enough to begin kindergarten that he also has developed the skills required for success. Unfortunately this is not always the case. During infancy and toddlerhood the different normal activities, which most people take for granted, provide stimulation which develops specific areas of the brain needed for these readiness skills. Not all children have had enough stimulation thus resulting in readiness gaps which can hinder their learning and ultimately their success.

“The School System Goal is to help our students develop the readiness skills they need to be successful,” states Tammy Oliver, now the system’s School Health Coordinator.  This goal is the main reason the SMART program was adopted by all three elementary schools in the Lebanon Special School District, at which time the program was referred to as K-SMART.  It is designed to make up for these readiness gaps of poor auditory processing skills, attention and impulse disorders, poor eye-hand coordination and poor physical balance. The program’s research has pinpointed the specific areas of the brain that are associated with each of these readiness gaps and the precise activities to reinforce the connections, thus bridging these gaps.

To begin their day of learning, kindergarten students spend 25 minutes involved in K-SMART.  They are divided into small groups of five to eight students and each group rotates between nine activity stations.  Jenni Mason, a kindergarten teacher at Sam Houston Elementary, observed that the small groups allow teachers to help students and thus promote individualized learning through the use of movement. The stations involve gross (large muscle group) or fine (small muscle group) motor skills while reviewing academic skills covered in the classroom. Students may hop on letters as they name them at one station using their gross motor skills, while others trace the letters in raised trays at another station using their fine motor skills.  Mary Spann, a Byars Dowdy teacher who taught kindergarten before and after K-Smart was implemented, noted that the number of students who mastered their fine motor skills such as coloring, writing and cutting, increased to nearly 100% of her class. This was a much higher success rate than the conventional curriculum had achieved.  

The program’s stations center around three core activities: the creep mat, overhead ladder, and alligator crawl.  All three activities help students learn an important skill in the program called cross lateralization.  Cross lateralization can be a difficult skill for some young children in that it involves crossing the mid-line of the body and touching opposites (hand to knee for instance), but this skill helps strengthen the same neural connections the brain uses for reading, writing, and math processes. On the creep mat, students crawl across a mat placing their hands on cards as they say the number/letter/word. The overhead ladder, or monkey bars, is used for students to hang and swing in the beginning, working up to eventually crossing. The alligator crawl is similar to the creep mat in the way skills are reviewed but the children are on their bellies reaching with their hands and pushing forwards with their feet.

Two other activities that are done regularly in the program are spinning and balancing. Spinning promotes calmness and helps a child focus by stimulating the same part of the brain that is targeted by medication in hyperactive children. Sarah Rogers, who taught Physical Education for several years in another school district with a traditional P.E. and kindergarten program before coming to teach at Byars Dowdy stated, “You can see a lot more growth.” She went on to say that she wouldn’t want to teach kindergartners any other way now that she has taught with the K-SMART program.

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