The Alexander Technique and Early Childhood Education
by Robert Rickover
In the course of my work as a teacher of the Alexander Technique (1), Im often asked just how it is that so many of us have developed harmful patterns of posture and movement. I tell them about the horrible furniture children are forced to use in most schools (2), problems with carrying heavy backpacks and the unconscious immitation of parents who themselves may have poor posture.
But underlying all these is the fact that most parents and teachers really have no idea just how easy it is for children to pick up bad habits of posture and movement, and how quickly these habits can become lasting distortions.
Take for example the process of teaching children how to write. Penmanship, it was called when I was in school and it was a most unpleasant experience. My handwriting was judged not acceptable and for awhile, I was forced to stay after school for additional practice. But no matter how hard I tried to copy the perfect examples posted on the wall of my third-grade classroom, my writing just didnt measure up.
In hindsight, it is clear that my attempts to get it right probably made my writing worse and certainly contributed to a pattern of holding a lot of excess tension in my hands, arms and shoulders. It was only after I began taking Alexander Technique lessons some thirty years later that I learned how to release this harmful habit.
Think about whats involved in teaching a class of thirty 8-year olds how to write: Some of the children will learn this skill quite easily. But others - like me - will not, often because they simply have not yet developed the fine motor control necessary to move a pen or pencil in a precise way across a page. All too often, the pressure to get it right causes them to produce a lot of extra tension as they write, including scrunching themselves down over their desks.
From the classroom teachers point of view, these scrunching children are making an effort and they may even be rewarded for their obvious desire to do well. After all, theyre not disrupting the classroom as some of the other children may be doing, perhaps in frustration with being forced to learn something theyre not ready for. Inadvertently, these tension patterns may be reinforced by their teachers approval of their effort.
The problem is that these habits of tension often persist into adulthood. Take a look at what people around you do to themselves when they write - youll often see shoulders hunched up, stiff hands and fingers and other forms of tension totally inappropriate to the task. If you have children, take a look at what they do when they take up pen and paper (or, for matter, when they use a computer keyboard). Take a look at yourself doing this in a mirror. You may be shocked at what you see!
The experience of Elizabeth Langford, a respected British teacher of the Alexander Technique illustrates just how easy it is to transfer harmful habits to our children: As a child, helping in the kitchen, it was by watching my mother that I learned how to beat eggs with a fork. Along with the rapid forearm movement, I copied what she did with her shoulders - and soon began to feel cramped and tired. How could I know, young as I was, than the tension I had copied was merely an expression of my mothers anxiety to hurry on to the next task, that it contributed nothing to the speed or effectiveness of the egg-beating. Whipping the whites was done with a knife on a large plate, but since this skill, even more fascinating, was demonstrated by my grandmother, a dignified old lady who operated at how own speed, it never involved me in muscular problems, then or later. As an adult, I have been able to analyze the difference, and have become passionately interested in disentangling skills from the snares surrounding them.(1)
F. Matthias Alexander, the originator of the Alexander Technique, recognized this kind of problem and maintained that the Technique should be taught to young children so they could avoid taking on harmful physical habits from the start. As is the case in so many other areas, prevention is far more efficient and far less time-consuming than changing deeply ingrained habits in adult students.
One of Alexanders students was Professor John Dewey, the American philosopher and founder of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism. Dewey was also very influential in the development of American education during the first half of the 20th Century. Indeed, he is sometimes called The Father of American Education.
From his own experience with the Alexander Technique, it was clear to Dewey that Alexander was right, that the Technique ought to be taught to children. Heres what he had to say about this:
"(Alexander's) discovery would not have been made and the method or procedure perfected except by dealing with adults who were badly coordinated. But the method is one of remedy; it is one of constructive education. Its proper field of application is with the young, with the growing generation..." (emphasis added)
In my experience, small children are quite capable of learning the basic ideas of the Alexander Technique - and usually much quicker than their parents. The problem is that neither their teachers nor their parents are aware of whats at stake.
Hopefully this will change as more parents and teachers recognize the powerful influnce they have on their childrens posture and coordination, and take steps to ensure that influcence is a positive one.
1. Mind and Muscle - An Owner's Manual, Elizabeth Langford, page 220.
2. How Children Develop Harmful Posture and Movement Patterns explores this queston in some detail.
Education2000 is an excellent website for parents and teachers who want to see the principles of the Alexander Technique taught in schools.
The Alexander Technique Bookstore in Association with AMAZON.COM provides information on ordering Mind and Muscle and several books about the Alexander Technique and early childhood education as well as a great many books, videos, DVDs and audio bookss about the Alexandertechnique.
The John Dewy and F. Matthias Alexander Homepage explores the connection between these two men.
William Jakes has written a very nice article titled ABCs of Good Posture by the Father of American Education
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Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the Alexander Technique Content Editor for America OnLine, Suite101.com, and OmPlace.com. He is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique Web Site Homepage: alexandertechnique.com/nebraska.htm
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