Have you heard of the “Cats vs. Pickles” line of children’s toys? They are one of those trends that has popped up in certain circles of “kid life”. Basically, they are little stuffed animals that are either a “cat” or a “pickle”. The intention of the manufacturer is to get kids to “collect all” and you can buy them blind- in a sealed package where you don’t know which one you got until you open it.
I happened upon these cute little toys about a year ago. I liked them because they are heavier than usual stuffies and serve as little beanbags, although the price is higher than regular bean bags- lol.
Anyway, I have started quite a collection of these little toys and, needless to say- many of the kiddos I work with enjoy them as much as I do!
This post isn’t about getting you to go out and buy cats and/or pickles for your child though. It’s about “automatic” vs. “deliberate” movements.
You see, one of the games I play with kids (using the cats and pickles) is a game that involves tossing the cat or pickle back and forth to each other. However- not just tossing the cat and/or pickle back and forth. I add in what’s sometimes referred to as a “cognitive challenge”.
For this challenge, we have to say something each time we toss the cat or pickle. Now at first, the round might include us just stating “cat” or “pickle” to delineate which one we are throwing. But then, it turns to stating “pickle” when it’s a cat, and “cat” when it’s a pickle. Next, I might move to saying “crunch” when it’s a pickle, and “meow” when it’s a cat. And then, you guessed it- I reverse it so that we say “meow” when it’s a pickle, and “crunch” when it’s a cat.
At this point, you may be wondering why this is called a “cognitive challenge”? Or perhaps you’ve already guessed that when playing this way we are engaging other parts of our brain- the higher centers that are in charge of cognition?
You see, when we are working on developmental movements, we are looking at movements that should be automatic, and executed as easily as other automatic system movements such as digestion, blinking and swallowing. For example, for an older child, bringing both hands to midline to catch a ball (or a cat or pickle) should be relatively automatic, wouldn’t you say? A child shouldn’t have to cognitively think (albeit it subconsciously or consciously) about bringing their hands together to catch the object. It should just happen. Not to mention all the other aspects of catching the object- such as balance and eye-hand coordination. They should also be automatic.
So what happens when I introduce a cognitive challenge into the game? It helps me to see if the child is engaging the higher centers of their brain in order to organize their body and movements for the activity. Or, if it’s happening more organically- coming from the lower, more automatic centers in the brain.
When the higher centers of the brain are engaged with saying “cat” or “pickle” (or one of the other challenges I mentioned above) it means the brain is focused on something other than the movement pattern and organization of the body for the activity.
So what happens in that case?
Well, if the movement truly is being executed by the higher centers of the brain, then what I might see is the child all of the sudden pausing to think- body no longer engaged, no longer able to catch or throw the toy because they are so focused on what they need to say. Or, the child might start to lose balance. Or, maybe they just find it very hard to organize the movement in their hands to catch the cat or pickle. Any of these may occur, as well as others.
It’s not that the child absolutely can’t catch the object, or balance, or organize their movement. It’s just that it’s not yet automatic. The higher centers of the brain- those responsible for the cognitive process- are being engaged instead. Is it any wonder some kids are so tired at the end of the school day? If a child’s brain is constantly using the cognitive centers of the brain for movements that should be automatic- what’s left for new learning?
As are all my toys and materials, the cats and pickles are helpful to me when I work with clients. The kids enjoy playing with them, and I enjoy using them as a tool to help me gauge how a child is progressing.
And of course, when we “mess up” and say the wrong thing during one of those cognitive challenges- it often brings giggles, if not full blown belly laughter!
And we know what happens when we’re in joy, right?
The brain changes faster!!