ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — After a raucous game of tag, after excited chatter, even with imaginary bubbles in everyone’s mouth, after a squirmy exercise in counting — there was an eerie absence of voices.
At Close to My Heart, a preschool in Maplewood, a soothing melody started, and on a TV screen, kindly strangers showed off flowing arm motions. For a little while during the manic week before Christmas, all was quiet.
Almost a year ago, Roberta Scherf, a River Falls, Wis., mom of a daughter with autism, launched a DVD designed to calm fidgety bodies and anxious minds. This fall, the DVD started catching on at schools. In mere months, it has become a hit among educators: More than 100 schools in Minnesota have ordered a copy. In special-education and mainstream classrooms alike, educators are popping it in for a soothing pause during action-packed days.
“This DVD has been a present that fell out of the sky for me,” said Lisa Kalina, a second-grade teacher in Prior Lake.
Scherf stumbled upon the idea for the DVD more than a decade ago. Her daughter, who had been diagnosed with autism, rarely spoke, avoided eye contact and had trouble focusing. To Scherf, it seemed, the girl’s mind was just too overwhelmed with stimuli for her to pay attention and connect.
So every morning and night, the pair started doing a calming routine: simple, repetitive movements set to soft singing. The results, Scherf said, were surprising: Before long, her daughter, 5 at the time, started reaching out for hugs and reading words and sentences.
“All of us lose our ability to learn and communicate effectively when we are under stress,” Scherf said. “When you are in a calm state, you can learn and integrate new things.”
Soon, Scherf started thinking about sharing her discovery. Motherhood and a desire to perfect the DVD slowed things down. “MeMoves” finally hit the market in January. It features 13 routines in which people ages 2 to 90 take turns demonstrating arm motions to catchy tunes.
“This isn’t something that cures anything,” Scherf said. “It allows kids to function more easily, effectively, enjoyably.”
Scherf and her partner Chris Bye introduced the DVD at an assistive technology conference in Orlando, Fla., last winter. Some intrigued school occupational therapists picked it up. Since then, mostly through word of mouth, the DVD has landed in more than 350 districts nationwide. Locally, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Anoka-Hennepin, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Stillwater, Lakeville and other districts are using it.
Last spring, the Parents Choice Foundation, a Maryland-based nonprofit, gave “MeMoves,” which sells for $59.95, its top endorsement.
“I knew right away that would be a great way to calm kids and get them to organize their bodies,” said Charisse Courteau, an occupational therapist at Apple Valley’s Highland Elementary.
After an early-childhood special-education class followed along to the moves recently, the school psychologist sat the class down to a 20-minute talk about feelings. By 4-year-old standards, that was a marathon of staying put — yet there was surprisingly little fidgeting.
At Maplewood’s Close to My Heart, the video got everyone’s attention, though not everyone followed along the entire time. Among a forest of arms reaching for the ceiling, a few youngsters got into an argument over whose “papa” an onscreen elderly man was. A boy came within inches of the screen to inspect the action.
Most of the preschool’s students come from homeless shelters, and, said director Anne Hennessey, attention is at a premium during the holidays.
“They love it because there are people they can connect with on the screen,” she said. “The happy faces really calm them down.”
In Prior Lake’s Jeffers Pond Elementary, Kalina has an extra-energetic group of 24 second-graders this school year. A 26-year classroom veteran, she gets distracted youngsters back on track with “body breaks,” a march or simple dance moves to release pent-up energy. But this fall, kids would goof off — until a colleague suggested “MeMoves” in November. The class now does the routines every afternoon.
“My kids were staying put longer,” Kalina said. “It’s almost mesmerizing for them.”
By MILA KOUMPILOVA
St. Paul Pioneer Press
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