Some thoughts on how & why Feldenkrais can be so effective for children and teenagers.

by Lou Coleman. Written in September 2019

Neuroscience has given us incredible insight into how the brain and the nervous systems continue to learn new skills – learning never stops. Feldenkrais is grounded in the belief that everybody can learn regardless of abilities. The method is subtle yet dynamic, and through a movement modality, a Feldenkrais approach unites the self to organise for better everyday functionality.

One of the first things babies begin to learn is how to move.  They respond to stimuli – internal and external sensory sensations. In the early weeks and months of life, along with bonding with their primary caregiver(s), babies begin their long apprenticeship with the floor. The floor is the place where most early functional movement learning happens.  They respond to sensory impulses to kick, to move their arms, to breathe, to turn their eyes and head.

They discover the beginning of weight shift and weight bearing; the basics of physics – if something lifts, something else presses. Through these subtleties of pressing and lifting different parts of themselves, their relationship with gravity begins to change and they begin to roll, changing their orientation.  Over time, they work out how to lift their head, move their pelvis, get their arms out of the way as they roll.  Trials through sensation and movement gradually sees their movement repertoire develop. No-one tells a baby how to move, yet their sensory movement foundations are being laid, and they’re off on their way towards the next development stages.

Children and teenagers who are born with or acquire impairments, conditions or disabilities have very similar early learning processes to those who do not have medical diagnoses. Their growing curiosity of the world invites them to respond to what they find is possible for them. They explore the beginnings of movements and  navigate their own physicality.  They explore their world through their sensory intelligence – their knowing eyes, their breathing, or a weakness in limbs that will effect weight bearing and balance. These unique characteristics will influence their movement repertoire.

In their own time as sensory beings they start their learning journey by figuring it out for themselves, through working out what is possible. All babies and children follow their intelligence and no one tells them how to move.

For children and teenagers who have additional physical or learning needs, my role as a Feldenkrais Practitioner – someone who teaches movement – could be helpful. My approach appreciates the child’s non-verbal wisdom, whether I’m working with diagnoses of autism, profound and multiple disabilities, sensory processing or cerebral palsy. I meet the child or teenager with respect for how they already move. I’m not looking to fix or correct, but to invite the child into the wonderful world of learning from their own resources and skills. Working together, they extend that learning, building on their own intelligence and sensation. This approach supports their brain and body working more in harmony – everybody could do with some of that!

This learning through movement and sensation is a language children and teenagers are already experts in. It could be they’re already moving independently on and across the floor.  It could be they’re wanting to learn a new everyday functional movement or simply to have more agency, but are a little stuck.

In sessions lasting about an hour, we work toward learning a particular skill or movement. We explore pieces of the movement puzzle they already know, to ensure the foundations are stable enough to be built on. A house can’t be built on wobbly foundations! Then we move on towards the next part; this could be a subtle, very internal movement, but could be a part of the larger puzzle. In the same way as babies try, make errors, find different variations, and then find the easiest and most comfortable way, we will too. We explore the different possibilities.

As a teacher working with the child or teenager, my approach is mostly hands-on, using touch. Touch as communication taps into the child and teenager’s sensory intelligence.  It is part of a fantastic internal language they already know, and have known long before other ways of communicating began to develop. A Feldenkrais approach, using respectful, intentional, clear touch, can support learning from the inside-out. Relying on through-the-body sensory information – tactile feedback, proprioception, vestibular and kinaesthetic sensing, they learn through movement. This approach to learning can be particularly beneficial for children and teenagers whose worlds are more non-verbal, whose communication is mostly through body language: their knowing eyes, their hand fidgeting, bubbling vocalisations or leading you towards the object they want. By trial and error, by trying many different options, touch and sensory input become another way to communicate and learn.

After we explore together the different aspects of the movement puzzle that feeds into their development, it’s over to them. As a sensory being with many capacities and wisdom they translate what they have learnt in their own way, finding ways to live life with more agency and connectivity.

Lou Coleman is a Feldenkrais Practitioner whose practice has developed from over 17 years of working with children, teenagers and their families in a variety of settings. Over the years she has supported families with disabled children as they welcome a new baby into the family.

Lou has experience and training in the different approaches which can be used to support people with Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC) and Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). With her everyday being rich with the nuances of life, she knows that creating a welcoming, fun environment without limiting expectations can bring out the delightfully unexpected! 

This article was written for the September edition (2019) of the Feldenkrais Guild UK’s public newsletter. Contacting a Practitioner and speaking to them about their work and experience is the best way to start a conversation about Feldenkrais for children and teenagers.  

Image credits: Laura Montag for Lou Coleman’s project Stick-Stuck a curious place to play. Stock image and biog photo: Mel Elyse