Mental Gymnastics

MENTAL GYMNASTICS – click to download PDF

MENTAL GYMNASTICS – Bilateral Integration and Cognitive Loading

This activity helps to develop the integration of the two halves of the brain, and the ability to multitask. The inclusion of this technique in therapy has been shown to have a catalytic effect in therapy, significantly reducing the duration of therapy in half in virtually all cases. The version described in the attached PDF document outlines the process of moving from tapping to train rhythm, to hopping to build bilateral integration. You are advised to review both this post and the attached PDF.

Background/Discussion: Research at the University of Illinois in 1990 showed that simple mental tasks are best handled by using one hemisphere of the brain at a time, and that complex mental tasks were best handled by the use of both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously. Schoolwork requires complex thinking. The ability to use both sides of the brain in a coordinated fashion is an acquired skill, in large part. We become more able to to integrate activities of the two hemispheres more easily with time and with better spatial-motor skills.This activity integrates at least five sensory and motor skills: Visual (for balance); Auditory/temporal (the rhythm); Gross Motor; Fine Motor (ankles and toes used in balancing); and the Vestibular sense (balancing/bodily coordination).

Unfortunately, our modern sedentary lifestyle has de-emphasized pure motor skills activities and tends to replace those activities with adult, thought-oriented activities in their place. This appears to be a totally inadequate preparation for thinking for a significant sector of our school-age population. And so we have a growing number of children who are taught to THINK, perhaps also taught to DO, but who have had less than adequate opportunities to think AND do simultaneously. The performance of any one skill degrades when an additional sensory or motor stimulus is added to input, in a phenomenon known as cognitive loading. It’s the old story of not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

TIMING – This activity should take about five minutes for each daily session, if possible. This activity is very useful and it should be strongly considered an important exercise. Please do not omit it. Half the time is spent on tapping, half on hopping (download PDF: MENTAL GYMNASTICS).

EQUIPMENT – Two drum sticks, spoons or pencils.


  • The child sits or stands (more difficult while standing) facing a counter top or a table. She reproduces the sequences below by tapping her drumsticks on the table or counter top. You may wish to place a book on the table or counter to protect the surface.
  • The performance should be smooth, even, steady — missing no beats — as if a metronome were beating. Watch for signs of unevenness/segmenting of the beats (a conscious switch from right to left hemispheres of the brain, like “tap-TAP — tap-TAP” is generally heard).
  • Automaticity needs to be stressed, so that the production of the rhythm appears virtually effortless. In other words, work one basic skill until it is done automatically, with very little or no thought.
  1. TAP 1 with left stick and 1 with right stick. – Maintain slow, steady, even, automatic production. (“TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP”, etc.)
  2. TAP 2 right and 2 left. Again, maintain an even beat with the same emphasis on each beat.
  3. TAP 1 right and 2 left. Watch for and avoid “tap-tap-TAP/tap-tap-TAP” – a segmentation with a rest beat added in. There should be no emphasis on any of the beats and even time spaces between the beats.
  4. TAP 1 right and 2 left.
  5. Alternate Tapping — Switch 1/2 and 2/1 upon command.

COGNITIVE LOADING — After all the rhythms can be easily produced (or upon the instruction of the therapist) these activities are added to the hopping:

A. FAMILIAR TERMS — have the child repeat all the family names that he/she can, known addresses, telephone numbers, the alphabet, nursery rhymes, give directions on how to drive to school, to church, how to get to different rooms in the house from the front and back doors, describe pets, etc. — all while maintaining the rhythm. Stress that it is more important to keep the rhythm going than to keep talking. Practice with all the rhythms.

B. FAMILIAR CONCEPTS — count by ones to 100 (less for younger children), counting by twos, then by fives, counting by odd numbers, then threes, fours, sevens. These demands can be reversed at any time — but at all times, tailor the task to assure the child’s success with a bit of “reaching”. We don’t want to expose the child to repeated failure — there’s enough of that already in your child’s life. Use the alphabet–by sections–forward and backward (your child shouldn’t have to recite from /a/ to /e/ to give you /f/ through /m/) — only do them backwards in three, four, or five letter segments at first — whatever your student can succeed with.

C. UNFAMILIAR CONCEPTS — You can practice spelling lists, or spelling words backwards, or counting by adding/subtracting sums (i.e., add 3, then subtract 2 from each answer starting with 1 — or another, different starting number). Vary the sequences. Present math facts in unique ways: “How many 4’s are there in 24?” or, “How many times can I subtract 3 from 27?” etc.

D. OTHER — You may use a chart of arrows to have the child recite the directions of while drumming. The child can imagine a four point diamond on the surface in front of him: He can drum to the left if the arrow points left, right if the arrow is right pointing, drum away from himself if the arrow is pointing up, and drum near himself if the arrow is pointing downward.