Wow! Ed: Newsletter from the Center for Educational Improvment
Yoga, Math & Play 
May 2015
In This Issue

NAESP Principals Conference in Long Beach, Calif.
Register by June 2 to receive a copy of Technology Guidelines! 

Registration Contact:  [email protected]

Join Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director, and CEI Board members Dr. Kathleen Sciarappa, Dr. Nancy Phenis-Bourke, and Paul Liabenow, along with Dr. Melissa Patsche, Jill Flanders, Heather Smith, Joe Crowley and others as we discuss how we are implementing 21st Century learning and consider Classrooms of the Future at the National Association of Elementary School Principals Conference in Long Beach, CA on Tuesday, June 30, 8- 9:45 am. Westin Hotel, 3rd Floor, Melbourne Room.

Carnegie Mellon Summer School Deadline: May 14!
This is the **last call** for applications to the highly acclaimed summer school on advanced learning technologies at Carnegie Mellon University.
Complete information about the summer school is below. The application deadline is **Thursday** May 14, 2015.

Click here to apply.
Opportunity to Recruit Carnegie Mellon's METALS Graduate Students
Carnegie Mellon's second cohort of Professional Masters in Educational Technology and Applied Learning Science (METAL S) students is completing their advanced study this August.

As METALS graduates, they are innovators in educational technology. They will challenge the future of learning  by reexamining the goals of education and assessment. They look forward to taking key positions in industry as instructional designers, developers, and evaluators of educational technologies as well as learning engineers, curriculum developers, and learning
technology policymakers.

The full-time graduates are actively interviewing and are available to work in the United States. The international students qualify for OPT (Optional Practical Training) for 29 months (12 months plus a 17 month extension) before they would need an H1B visa or permanent residency. If you or someone else at your organization is interested in recruiting these students, click here to view their resumes. 
Multiple Copies 
CEI offers a customizable training module on Heart Beaming and can mail hard copies of our Heart Beaming tool for a small fee, processed via secure PayPal. Click here. Other quantities can also be ordered by contacting CEI directly.


Dear Educators, 

With summer around the corner, many of us are already chanting a vacation mantra. Whether you are planning for a trip to The Beach, or simply looking forward to a break from it all, you may already be fantasizing a schedule--sleeping in, undoing the chain that ties you to your desk, getting outside, and spending more quality time with your loved ones. And I am sure most of you realize that this time off is so healthy, so good for our brains and our overall well-being.

So in the spirit of "Fun in the Sun," CEI this month offers up a newsletter that focuses on some research-based reasons to incorporate more play into your school day. Whether it is finding a way to fit yoga or more humor into schools, encouraging imagination and pretending, or integrating play into math, there are ways to add play and value to student learning.
Yoga in Schools
By Christine Mason, Ph.D., CEI Executive Director

Let's get right to the heart of the matter. Please examine your beliefs to identify your yoga camp.

Here is a short quiz. Mark the response that best fits with your beliefs/knowledge.

1.     You believe:

a.     Yoga is fine, but really needs to be optional and after school
b.     Some parts of yoga such as stretches may fit into a PE curriculum
c.    Yoga is beneficial for students with social emotional problems
d.    Advocating for yoga in schools puts us squarely in the controversial position of mixing church and state and thus has no place in schools
e.    Yoga benefits almost everyone and every aspect of learning and being; thus it is of value in reducing stress, increasing flexibility, increasing brain-power, and improving health/fitness.
f.    You wouldn't mind fitting yoga into schools, but there really isn't time for it

2.    Research has shown that:

a.    Yoga helps youth and adults relax
b.    Yoga helps reduce the negative impact of trauma
c.    Yoga may help students with attention problems
d.    Yoga may improve problem solving skills and creativity
e.    Yoga is associated with academic gains
f.    Yoga is associated with decreases in disorderly conduct and fights
g.    Yoga is associated with positive self-identity, anger reduction, and empathy
h.    All of the above

Those of you who follow CEI know that I am a yoga teacher. In addition to my work as an educational researcher/ consultant, I have been teaching yoga 3-5 times a week since 2001.  Based on my direct experience as a yoga student and teacher, let me add Question #3.

3.    The individual gains that can be advanced with yoga:

a.    Take years of practice
b.    Are often immediate and build with practice over time
c.    Include the benefits of not only physical postures, but also attitude, breathwork, and meditation
d.    Can be found by reading about yoga; it is not necessary to actually experience yoga postures
e.    Can easily occur without yoga
f.    B and C are correct

Research. The number of yoga researchers that each year publish studies on the impact of yoga on reducing stress, improving fitness, and facilitating well-being is growing. Among them are Sat Bir at Harvard and Director of the Kundalini Research Institute,  Joanne Spence and Andrea Hyde at Yoga in Schools, Shirley Kishiyama and colleagues at the Oregon Health Sciences University, Eva Henje Blom at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and Robert Roesser at Portland State University.  Over the past decade a number of NIH-funded studies have been conducted by researchers at departments of complementary medicine or psychiatry in medical schools at major universities, as well as researchers at cancer and other medical centers.

In general, research has shown that yoga is a wonderful mediating mechanism for youth and others who have been impacted by trauma. When individuals have been traumatized, often the amygdala takes over and individuals stay stuck in a pattern of flight or fight, in essence reducing the brain-power available for critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and other functions.  Simply going through talk therapy or mental exercises may not result in the same gains as intervening with yoga or mindfulness (Manjunath & Telles, 2001; Schmalzl, et al., 2015; Seppala et al., 2014; Streeter et al., 2015).
In Schools. In recent years the number of yoga offerings for schools has increased dramatically. Here is a link for Yoga for kids with special needs--Radiant Child Yoga. The following is from a lesson from Kim Lauch, a Radiant Child Yoga teacher who use yoga with a child with autism:   
"Breathing with music:  Eventually, he left the couch. He walked calmly and controlled to the speaker. I gave it to him. He laid down and stretched his arms overhead while he held it. Wahe Guru was on repeat because I could tell he loved the relaxation songs. I guided his arms back and forth from overhead to his tummy while he held the speaker. I gently said we breathe in (arms overhead) we breathe out (arms on his tummy). He was smiling and calm. We repeated 5 times."

For young children, also check out the following from Shakta Kaur's website.
  • Paintbrush is a sensory technique from RCY Yoga for Children with ADHD/Autism training
  • Fly Like A Butterfly song, from Happy CD/MP3
  • From Deeply Relax and Meditate CD/MP3
Yoga for Youth. The Y.O.G.A. for Youth mission is to provide urban youth with tools for self-discovery that foster hope, discipline and respect for self, others and community.

Since its inception in 1993, Y.O.G.A. for Youth has served over 16,000 young people in Los Angeles County alone. Krishna Kaur, the Founder and CEO, is known internationally for her Y.O.G.A for Youth program. A recent article in the Huffington Post (Brock, 2014) describes the value and the process of this approach with eighth grade students in a class at the Watts Learning Center Charter School:

"All were dressed in classic school paraphernalia and patiently waiting, some more than others, for a cue from their instructor. Instructor Ed Tellis, engaged the young men very quickly and began class with each student saying an affirmation beginning with "I am" and the class repeating "You are _______.

Following the affirmations students began chanting in unison. The powerful yet controlled tone neutralized the energy in the room, allowing students who had all arrived to class with their own set of challenges, to unite and move forward in the practice together. It was clear that the role of the instructor was not solely to reinforce the different poses but, through careful guidance and choice of words, to use Kundalini to tap into students' self-awareness, heart and consciousness."

Yoga in Schools. Another program, Yoga in Schools has reached over 20,000 youth and 1,000 teachers, including many in Pittsburgh public schools. Available on the site is Train-the-Trainer: A White Paper on the Delivery of District-Wide Yoga Education in Pittsburgh, PA, by Spence and Hyde. The document provides the history of yoga and the efficacy of it in schools.

Additional resources can also be found on the website.

Note to Readers: Watch CEI Blogs.  Additional briefs on the benefits of yoga will be published during the next month


Brock, A. (2015, May and March). Kundalini Yoga used to reach youth in underserved communities and juvenile detention centers. Huffington Post.  

Manjunath, N. K., & Telles, S. (2001). Improved performance in the Tower of London Test following yoga. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 45(3), 351-354.

Schmalzl L., Powers, C. & Henje Blom E. (2015). Neurophysiological and neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the effects of yoga-based practices: Towards a comprehensive theoretical framework. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 9:235. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00235

Seppälä, E. M., Nitschke, J. B., Tudorascu, D. L., Hayes, A., Goldstein, M. R., Nguyen, D. T. H., Perlman, D. & Davidson, R. J. (2014).  Breathing-based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in U.S. military veterans: A randomized controlled longitudinal study. J. Traum. Stress, 27: 397-405. doi: 10.1002/jts.21936

Streeter, C. C., Gerbarg, P. L., Saper, R. B., Ciraulo, D. A., & Brown, R. P. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Med Hypotheses, 78(5), 571- 579. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.021
Finding Comfort in Comedy: How Humor Creates a Safe Classroom That Facilitates Learning
By Annie Burch, Intern

As students get older, colorful, toy-filled classrooms shift into serious, solemn lecture halls. Opportunities for play disappear. Although high levels of education certainly require more formal education processes, play is still crucial at all ages (Conklin, 2015). According to Vera Robinson, "humor is the only form of play usually acceptable in a predominantly serious situation" (as cited by Weaver & Cotrell, 2001). To many, laughter coming from a classroom sounds like pranks and misbehavior, off-topic distractions, or a loss of control. However, laughter does not always undermine the education process.

In an investigation of the pedagogical implications of the use of humor in the classroom, Randall Garner (2006) found that humor can positively impact a classroom in many ways:

Humor can help an individual engage the learning process by creating a positive emotional and social environment in which defenses are lowered and students are better able to focus and attend to the information being presented. Additionally, humor can serve as a bridge between educators and students by demonstrating a shared understanding and a common psychological bond (p. 1).

Using humor to bring laughter and smiles to a classroom can help create a comfortable environment that facilitates learning (McNeely, n.d.). According to Skinner (2010), humor creates a positive learning environment, even in the face of difficult topics. Humor can increase student receptivity to material and instruction (Garner, 2006). In addition, humor can reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-esteem and morale, and create a much less adversarial relationship between students and teachers (Ivy, 2013). 

Putting Humor to Use. Deirdre Sexton, a Health teacher, uses jokes to address embarrassing situations and show the students she is human, just like them. After teaching her students that the cerebellum controls balance and coordination, Deirdre says, "when I trip over their backpacks, I might make a joke that my cerebellum is taking a nap" (McNeely, n.d.). A simple comment like Deirdre's lets students know it's okay to make mistakes; teachers do, too, and it reinforces material from the lesson.

Often times, especially in a particularly difficult unit or class, humor can also help students feel more comfortable participating and interacting (Skinner, 2010). In the film Dead Poet's Society, Mr. Keating, an English teacher, imitated the sound of a game show buzzer when a student provided an incorrect answer. Mr. Keating was able to respond with feedback while helping the student feel comfortable, rather than embarrassed, about his participation and his mistake (Skinner, 2010).

Relating content to humorous, relatable, or real-life situations also helps students feel more open to and enthusiastic about learning (McNeely, n.d.). An Illinois English teacher, Tracee, collects funny images of misspelled words or punctuation errors on cakes, advertisements, slogans, etc. on a Pinterest board and uses them whenever she needs to review a writing skill (McNeely, n.d.). This strategy turned the dreaded topic of grammar and mechanics into "a lot more fun for everyone" (McNeely, n.d.).

Strategies, Tips, and Ideas. Humor can come in many forms: pictures, cartoons, videos, jokes, stories, actions; many factors influence its effectiveness. Some humor will enhance a lesson greatly, while other humor may detract from the learning environment. Various sources offer additional information on effectively using humor in the classroom:
  • Play off of students' comments (Weaver & Cotrell, 2001)
  • Ask students to provide relevant jokes or stories (Weaver & Cotrell, 2001)
  • Do outrageous things like throw an item across the room (Weaver & Cotrell, 2001)
  • Use humorous or ridiculous examples, sentences, answers, or questions on tests (Gilliland & Mauritsen, 1971)
  • Keep humor content-related instead of random (Ivy, 2013)
  • Use a political cartoon to explain a historical event (Ivy, 2013)
  • Do not tell offensive, insensitive, or targeting jokes (Ivy, 2013)
  • Use a joke to introduce a topic (Ivy, 2013)
  • Be aware of students' developmental levels when using humor (Ivy, 2013)
  • Do not use excessive humor (Ivy, 2013)

Conklin, H. G. (2015, March 3). Playtime isn't just for preschoolers - teenagers need it, too. Time.

Garner, R. L. (2006). Humor in pedagogy: How ha-ha can lead to aha! College Teaching, 54.

Gilliland, H. & Mauritsen, H. (1971). Humor in the classroom. The Reading Teacher, 24(8).

Ivy, L. L. (2013). Using humor in the classroom. Education Digest, 79(2).

McNeely, R. (n.d.). Using humor in the classroom.

Skinner, M. E. (2010). All joking aside: Five reasons to use humor in the classroom. The Education Digest, 76(2).

Weaver, R. L. II. & Cotrell, H. W. (2001). Ten specific techniques for developing humor in the classroom. Education, 108(2).

Annie Burch is a student in cognitive psychology at Vanderbilt University. Annie is completing a summer internship at CEI.
Mindful Play
By Vanessa Abrahams

The neuroplasticity of young brains is what allows children to be superior learners who pick up on nuances and inferences quite easily. The only fault of their learning ability is their attention span, which means they require a stimulation beyond being talked to or given practice work. In early childhood education, play and activity stimulates not only their physical development, but also drives their communication, social competence, and emotional maturity. Through play, children learn.

Why Play is Important. Pretend play is a child-directed activity that uses the imagination to create a fantasy world or situation that could be fun or interesting (University of Virginia, 2012). Research cited by the National Literacy Trust suggests pretend play is the most important element of healthy development in children. Below are 10 reasons why play is so important to the lives of children as identified by that group (National Literacy Trust, 2010).
  1. Play sets the foundation for literacy
  2. Play is learning
  3. Play encourages adults to communicate with the children in their lives
  4. Play gives children the chance to be spontaneous
  5. Play gives children choice
  6. Play gives children space
  7. Play gives adults the chance to learn how to play again
  8. Play allows adults to learn their child's body language
  9. Play teaches adults patience and understanding
  10. Play is fun.
Contrary Evidence. On the opposing side, the National Association for the Education of Young Children cites a literature review published in the Psychological Bulletin entitled The Impact of Pretend Play on Children's Development: A Review of the Evidence, which points fingers at studies that present pretend play as the most important element of healthy development in young children (Lillard, Lerner, et. al, 2012). The review of 150 research studies examines whether or not play actually supports the healthy development of children with regards to intellect and brain development.

There is the notion that play supports brain development; however, the role of pretend play is much more complex (University of Virginia, 2012). In early education, play is incorporated to build confidence among children and to encourage creativity. Angeline Lillard, University of Virginia psychology professor and lead author of the review, declares much of pretend play does just that: builds confidence, language and storytelling ability, social development and self-regulation; however, Lilliard's review suggests that play does not support overall brain development (University of Virginia, 2012).

Pretend play allows children to make decisions, pursue an interest, negotiate and compromise with the wants of their peers, and interact with physical objects in the real world; however, children who are exposed to play do not show much differences in intellect compared to children who are not. Play might encourage physical activity which supports healthy blood circulation to the brain and may positively affect focus, but focus is not correlated to intellectual ability. Lillard's et al. review suggests the benefits of play are more socially than intellectually oriented.

Reasons to Keep Promoting Play. 
Although Lillard's et al. research suggests play is less important to healthy brain development than was previously thought, play inspires excitement, strengthens neurons in the brain and encourages emotional maturity. The elements of play are integral in shaping the social success of young children and as online learning opportunities become more common, there is a deeper need for students to connect to information beyond oral lectures and informal play. Also it may provide a "happy context" for interaction with adults and other children, which in itself could be important.

While play is usually associated with young children, In secondary education, advanced play or gamification is incorporated quite often, particularly in schools with technological savvy. Play operates differently in secondary education curriculum and takes the shape of online learning tools, online classes, gamification and reward-based activities. Much of the emphasis in schools is on preparing for standardized tests the old fashioned way of pen and paper and busy work; however, it's important to consider the alternative software tools such as
  1. DuoLingo
  2. RibbonHero
  3. ClassDojo
  4. GoalBook
  5. The World Peace Game
  6. Coursera
  7. Skillshare
  8. CourseHero
  9. Brainscape
  10. Socrative 101
to name a few, which could also prove beneficial to students (Chou 2013).

DuoLingo, for instance, is a free online brain game that encourages players to build vocabulary skills in the foreign language of their choice. The game relies on a challenge and reward system to encourage players to achieve higher scores. In this way play fosters a desire for the player to improve language ability and acquire a new language. Learning and building skills in this fashion
  • Increases learner engagement,
  • Makes learning fun and interactive,
  • Improves absorption and retention of knowledge,
  • Allows learners the opportunity to see real world applications, and
  • Enhances the overall learning experience of all age groups.
Pretend play is crucial to communication, social competence, and emotional maturity in youngsters and advanced play should continue to be researched to see how best middle and high-schoolers can be assisted to achieve academic success.


Lillard, A.S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkin,  E. J., Dore, R, A. Dore, Smith, E. D. & Palmquist, C. (2012). The impact of pretend play on children's development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, DOI:10.1037/a0029321

University of Virginia. (2012, August 28). Pretend play may not be as crucial to child development as believed, new study shows. ScienceDaily.

Chou, Y. (2013, April 25). Top 10 education gamification examples that will change our future. Yukaichou.

National Literacy Trust. (2010, July 26). 10 reasons why play is important. LiteracyTrust.
Math and Play 
By Lindsay Reeves, CEI Intern

At young ages, children begin learning about math, even if it's unintentional. There is a preponderance of evidence which suggests that most of the number sense children gain is through practical, hands-on experiences.

Categories of Play. Scholars have observed that, with regard to math, many patterns and concepts are developed with unstructured playing. Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama have noted that six categories generally emerge, including:
  • Classifying
  • Exploring magnitude
  • Enumerating
  • Investigating dynamics
  • Studying pattern and shape
  • Exploring spatial relations

Take playing with blocks, for example. At the earliest stages of development, babies begin to freely stack blocks without consciously separating and stacking like shapes. However, by the onset of toddlerhood, children have the capacity to begin grouping and stacking, using vertical and horizontal blocks appropriately. This then translates to their ability to build solid foundations, thereby preventing the tower of blocks from falling. Finally, around age 4, children are able to integrate and develop their structures in more sophisticated ways, showing "flexibility in how they build and integrate parts." It is noted that children who can successfully navigate something as simple as playing blocks have already gained an edge on concepts like spatial reasoning. 

Amy Parks, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Georgia, noticed something additional in her personal study of play and problem-solving skills.

We already know that playing with blocks introduces math concepts, but I also see mathematics coming up in the doll corner, for example," she says. "Play in the doll corner helps develop language skills, but hasn't been seen as a site for mathematics development. But one of the things I've seen is girls folding up doll clothes, which gives them a chance to explore lines of symmetry and halves, for fractions. One of the things we did this year was to show videos of the pre-K playtime to the kindergarten teacher, who said: 'Wow. If I'd known this was going on, I could've used this while teaching these concepts.'"

Typically structured play is what occurs in the classroom. A teacher may supervise a particular game or exercise, which may provide a more controlled atmosphere; however, research has shown that children need a "minimum of 60 minutes a day of unstructured play." Allowing children to think freely and choose toys that best suit their interest fosters independence and imagination, both of which are crucial in developing curious math skills (The Role of Play in Learning Math).

Technology and Hands-on Manipulatives. One of the best, and most economically feasible measure of play, is found in hands-on manipulatives. When most children are allowed to physically interact with toys, they are able to gain a more concrete understanding of number sense and how to problem solve. While positive outcomes of this traditional level of play has held true over the decades, technology has also proven that it can promote student learnedness in math, too.

"Kids Math Count Numbers Game" is a popular app that teaches the fundamentals while staying true to the "play" test. In this game, students are able to learn how to (Chifro Studios, 2015):
  • Learn numbers from 1 to 10
  • Write and spell numbers
  • Identify greater and smaller numbers
  • Find missing numbers and arrange them in ascending and descending order
  • Learn number names
  • Connect dots to form a picture with a sub-activity to solve puzzle
  • Sing and dance with the "number song."

Whether children do best with "hands on" approaches, or through technological applications, in the end it is best that play remains central in the discussion of furthering math skills and student development.


Clements, D., & Sarama, D. (n.d.). Math play: how young children approach math. 

Cimons, M. (2012, September 10). Learning and play - researcher studies children's unstructured playtime.

The role of play in learning math (n.d.). Early learning math at home.

NOTE: The Play Math Manual shown at the top of the article can be found here.

Upping the Play


Summer, a time for fun. However, May, as we lead into summer, is also a time for revisioning the school schedule and school day. Now that Common Core is on a back burner, perhaps it is a very good time to reacquaint your staff with the notion of "upping the play" at your school. Who knows, you might even be increasing brain efficiency and improving overall health at the same time.


Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement