The PlayWisely System / A Learning Kick-start
Can a combination of flash cards and gravity-based physical activity be key to developing babies' and young kids’ brains? Former gymnast (and neuroscience enthusiast) Patty Hannan thinks so. Introducing PlayWisely: the cutting-edge science-based play system that's being developed in our own back yard.
When Tiffany Cuban found out she was having a son, friends warned her not to expect him to hit milestones as quickly as her daughters: You know, boys can be a little slower to develop than girls. Yet Tiffany, wife of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, found that Jake did everything faster, including talking way before his highly verbal sisters.
The Cubans had tried something different with Jake, nearly 3 – an innovative play-based approach to early childhood development that is piquing the attention of world-renowned scientists and a coterie of in-the-know moms. The method is called PlayWisely, and it’s the brainchild of Dallas-area mom Patty Hannan. Hannan, who is not a scientist but a former high-level gymnast, fused her passions for sports, science and education (she’s a co-founder and former teacher at The DaVinci School in Dallas) to develop an affordable curriculum for ages 0–5 that stimulates both the brain and body.
The deceptively simple, once-a-week 30-minute routine, offered in select schools and in private sessions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is designed to jump-start a child’s natural learning and movement capability. We’re not talking about traditional ABCs and 123s but a strategic triggering of the neural circuitry and sensory systems that will enable the fundamentals to fall into place efficiently later on.
It’s heady stuff to consider for a snuggly newborn. And, it’s an unlikely discovery from outside of the science community, but one that just might provide a key to transforming the way parents approach early childhood intervention and development for both typical kids and children with special needs.
An Oprah moment
Hannan didn’t set out to be a science-slash-academic trailblazer, yet her unique collection of life experiences – gymnastics, motherhood, teaching and coaching – prompted her to develop science-savvy PlayWisely, a system of body-brain exercises combining gripping flash cards with motor skill challenges.
She describes having an “Oprah moment” nearly a decade ago when her youngest daughters entered high school. Hannan loved the brain sciences and had, up to that point, studied them just for fun. Suddenly facing an empty nest, she realized it was her calling to create a systematic approach for training young minds. So she literally hit the floor with babies and toddlers to test different activities that exercised basic cognitive and psychomotor systems.
The PlayWisely concept starts with something simple: flash cards, albeit on steroids. “Without too much heavy science explanation, it’s basically gymnastics on a card,” says Hannan, whose sunny cheerleader disposition belies her formidable neuroscience know-how. “Our goal is to enhance efficient data detection and processing capabilities to instill essential learning skills such as attention, recognition and memory.”
Put simply, her method seeks to fire up kids’ brains to give them an edge in tackling milestones faster (such as speaking and potty training), as well as building necessary competencies such as focus at an earlier age.
Here’s how it works: In 30-minute, once-a-week action-packed sessions that employ intensity, repetition and novelty, specially trained coaches engage kids one-on-one or in small groups with amped-up flash cards and a physical regimen akin to gymnastics, including ball skills and fine motor development. Equal time is given to the cards and exercises – a purposeful division, Hannan says, citing research that recommends participating in physical activity before learning or in combination with learning to enhance retention and memory. Parents also participate, helping “coach” their child.
All of the card sets captivate the visual, auditory and motor senses simultaneously – a trifecta that has also been shown to aid learning. The cards target different skills such as attentiveness or pre-math ability by presenting the various ways amounts can be seen increasing and decreasing (with familiar images such as dogs and cats), all presented with catchy phrases spoken at varying volumes such as “BIG, little.”
The baby or child interacts differently to the materials, depending on developmental age. But one thing is common. “Kids love it,” says Cuban, who also put her middle daughter Alyssa in the program when the girl saw how much fun little brother Jake was having. “And the best part is they don’t even realize they are learning.”
Sara McMahon, who has put all three of her children through PlayWisely classes, says, “I love that it was designed to support their brain development and expose them to the right things at the right times.”
Gymnast in Space
Hannan intuitively understood the symbiosis between neurosensory processing and gravity during her years as an All-American collegiate gymnast. “These biological systems literally saved me from serious injury when performing complex flipping and twisting maneuvers on a regular basis,” she says.
Her curious nature and high-flying stunts led her to the Johnson Space Center in Houston nearly 30 years ago to participate in a NASA research project studying the performance capabilities of world-class gymnasts in space. The experience – especially the zero-gravity studies – tipped off Hannan to an important principle: The sensations of gravity form a basic reference for all sensory experiences, and thereby affect learning and movement. A simple example is how a baby’s head turns in response to his mother’s voice. The brain undergoes a complex series of calculations as it processes the information the baby picks up, using the force of gravity to make those determinations.
Dr. Jerry Hommick, research director for the Space Biomedical Research Institute at Johnson Space Center, urged Hannan to “learn the language of neuroscience” and help define what gymnasts innately know concerning physics. So Hannan returned home to tutor under Dr. Robert Moss, head of the Graduate Neuroscience Department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and, in the process, became interested in tapping into children’s maximum potential for cognitive development, as well as movement capability. PlayWisely was born as a way to prime the brain’s circuits to “turn on and tune in” those early cognitive and motor skills.
How Baby’s Brain Works
This pioneering body-brain approach is turning heads as much for its science as for its benefits. PlayWisely caught the attention of Eugene Galanter, Ph.D., emeritus professor and director of the Psychophysics Laboratory for Columbia University – no small feat, considering he is often cited as the father of cognitive science.
Galanter says PlayWisely is a sensible approach compared to many others he’s encountered for addressing education within the appropriate developmental timelines for ages 0–5. Galanter notes that brain organization, or neural connectivity, starts at less than one week old and launches the cognitive machinery that shapes all future learning. Research has long shown that early experiences and interaction with the environment are central to a child’s brain development and continuously alter the structure of the brain – for better or worse.
“Providing cognitive stimulation early and throughout development could have a profound impact on optimal cognitive functioning later in life,” adds Dr. Michael Motes, cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for BrainHealth.
Yet Hannan realized no one had come up with a systematic method for honing these burgeoning brain skills. “Scientifically, our ‘Directionality Method’ [creative play technique] is exactly the new science of learning that experts have been seeking,” Hannan says. “Turns out it had to be found on the living room floor instead of the lab.”
Motes, who teaches clinical psychology in the graduate program at UT Southwestern Medical Center, dubbed the program “brilliant” when he first came across it. “It was kind of like watching a walk through the history of perception,” he says. “Patty took generations of research on cognition, perception and neuroscience and developed this unique application.”
It’s hard to believe anything can be effective when done only 30 minutes a week, but Motes says the key is the intensity of the program. PlayWisely can accomplish so much in these brief sessions because of the pace and focus of the interactions, he says.
Hannan’s compatriots at NASA are likewise impressed. “She’s correct in that sensory integration, particularly through gravity experience, is important for learning,” says Millard Reschke, Ph.D., chief of NASA Neuroscience. “I think [her approach] is very good.”
But probably the most ardent supporters come from an unexpected quarter: Families of children with special needs.
“In the beginning, I was only thinking about the program as useful for normal, typically developing children,” Hannan says. “I had no idea it held promise for children with neurodevelopmental issues.”
Tool for Special Needs
All of that changed one day when Lisa Blue Baron, a well-known trial lawyer, licensed psychologist and widow of legendary asbestos litigator Fred Baron, asked Hannan to work with her infant twins in an effort to help improve their vision. The girls, Nathalie and Caroline, were born with a condition called optic nerve hypoplasia (ONH), a flattening of the optic nerve that can result in legal blindness. Hannan was already giving PlayWisely lessons to older daughter Alessandra, and Baron was impressed with her firstborn’s cognitive development. “I told Lisa what I tell everyone who comes to us with a unique situation,” Hannan says. “I am not sure what we can do for you, but we do know that early intervention is key.”
The Retina Foundation of the Southwest reviewed the progress of the girls and discovered that the amplitude of their eye movement had decreased – a good thing, because children with ONH suffer from involuntary eye movements – after several PlayWisely sessions. While vision impairment from ONH can range from mild to severe, according to the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, Hannan believes early intervention with the card system and physical activities beginning at 4 months made a significant difference for the Baron girls. After 3 1/2 years of PlayWisely, the girls are not considered legally blind and no longer wear glasses.
Hannan, the daughter of an ophthalmologist, says it suggested to her that the PlayWisely method could be effective at developing early compensation ability, as well as core visual skills. “The Baron girls taught me so much,” Hannan says. “They made me realize I needed to reconsider the potential of our program beyond just neurotypical children.”
Afterward, Hannan and her certified coaches began teaching PlayWisely to children with other visual impairments, language delays and even genetic conditions such as Down syndrome. The children responded and made strides.
Perhaps the most significant discovery is that PlayWisely may be of value to children displaying Autism Spectrum Disorder. Carolyn Garver, Ph.D., director of the Autism Treatment Center in Dallas, recently conducted a feasibility trial of PlayWisely with the Timberlawn Psychiatric Research Foundation of Dallas. With 40 years of studying autism under her belt, she’s seen and tried it all and says PlayWisely could offer another therapeutic strategy in addition to traditional applied behavior analysis therapy for children on the spectrum.
The trial tested 18 children with moderate to severe autism, using two PlayWisely sessions a week over three months. In the beginning, the children didn’t even want to sit still to watch the cards, but the transformation was, as Garver puts it, “unbelievable” and brought the veteran educator to tears on many occasions.
She said all of the children who participated in the study had a positive outcome in that some of their symptoms were mitigated or improved. Most telling about the results, she says, is the parents’ reactions. All of the families requested that the kids continue with PlayWisely.
Hannan believes the PlayWisely approach works for compromised brains because the method doesn’t focus solely on behavior but on improved sensory function and coordination.
No Baby Geniuses
Hannan and scientific experts are quick to point out that PlayWisely is not aiming to create “baby geniuses” or super-athletes. “We are laying the essential foundational wiring, so one day when your child finds her purpose, passion or talent, she can achieve her goals,” Hannan says.
And, the truth is parents can do these stimulation exercises at home. “Many of the activities in the PlayWisely sequences are similar to common play activities that actively involved parents engage in with their children, such as encouraging a child to point to a picture of a ‘cat’ in a book that the parent is reading to the child,” Motes says. “However, even involved parents typically engage in such activities unsystematically.”
Adds Hannan, “Research has shown that the most important factor in early learning is providing a safe, secure environment where baby feels loved. The next most important thing to do is have plenty of one-on-one time with your baby.” Hannan says all parents want their child to have a sound body and sound mind – they just aren’t sure how to go about it. “We provide that roadmap,” she says.
Having moved from parent to president, Hannan is in the process of figuring out how to make the program available on a broader scale. Sessions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area range in price from $20 to $25 per group class to $65 and up for private coaching. The optimal age to enroll a baby is at six weeks, but tots can jump in at any point through age 5. Hannan says parents will generally notice a difference in abilities after four weeks.
The concept was snapped up quickly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia through Hannan’s local teaching connections. Now Hannan has interest from all over the world and recently licensed coaches in Canada and Argentina. Hannan plans to expand throughout Texas, then Atlanta and New York City.
She’s also entered into a partnership with East Dallas Community Schools, a nonprofit serving low-income families, to make PlayWisely available for free at the Bachman Lake campus with the goal of expanding the program to other underprivileged communities.
If your child is older than 5 and missed the PlayWisely window, Hannan is reassuring. The affable, pony-tailed coach urges parents to focus on making learning and physical pursuits seem like an exciting adventure. “It is as important to fuel a passion for learning as much as the learning itself,” she says.