Kids As Competent Movers

By: Rae Pica

Those of us in the movement field (and those in the early childhood field who believe in the value of movement) often have to answer the question "Why are you doing this stuff?" Answering it knowledgeably and well is especially critical in this age of academic accountability.

Though movement is indeed essential to children's understanding of academic content areas, we have to remember that, first and foremost, movement is about the acquisition and refinement of motor skills. And this has value, too!

Like other skills acquired in the early years, movement skills need to be taught and practiced if they're to be mastered. Although it seems motor skills miraculously appear and develop on their own, the fact is, children who don't receive instruction and practice in this area will develop only marginal as opposed to maximal ability to use their bodies.

It only makes sense. Just as children acquire a vocabulary of words to use throughout life, they likewise acquire and develop a "movement vocabulary" consisting of fundamental locomotor (traveling), nonlocomotor (stationary), and manipulative (object- control) skills they can use for current and future physical activity. And just as we would never expect a child's language development to mature without help from us and without practice talking and talking and talking we can't expect movement skills to fully mature without assistance, and if children aren't moving and moving and moving.

Then there's the theory of "critical periods" or "windows of opportunity." Although their existence has been suspected for some time, critical periods have been receiving more scientific support of late. The theory contends that nature provides certain times when the child's experience can have the greatest impact on various aspects of her development. These "windows of opportunity" begin opening before birth but shrink as the child gets older. For most basic motor skills, the critical period the time during which experience can have the most influence seems to extend from the prenatal stage to about age five.

Does this mean that a child who doesn't take full advantage of this critical period will be damaged for life? No. But it can mean that, without enough appropriate movement experience from birth to five, the child will miss out on the opportunity to achieve the best possible motor skill development. And the experts feel that, for certain skills, there is definitely a "too late." The brain's motor neurons must be trained between the ages of two and 11 or they won't be "plastic" enough to be rewired later in life.

Of course, not every child will go on to play sports, compete in gymnastics, or study dance. For those who don't, optimal motor skill development wouldn't seem to be such a big deal. But it is the individual who feels competent and confident when moving who'll most likely continue moving throughout life who'll most likely take part in lifelong physical activity and thereby achieve all of the health benefits it has to offer. Adolescents and adults who haven't acquired and mastered fundamental movement skills are the ones who shy away from physical activity because the movements required feel unnatural and overly strenuous; learning them at an older age is much more challenging. And the fear of failing and looking foolish is a powerful deterrent. (Have you ever witnessed someone refusing to get on the dance floor with his partner, or freezing at her turn to serve in a family volleyball game?)

Moreover, research has found that children without the ability to execute basic motor skills are three times more sedentary than skilled children! And, because children judge themselves and others by their movement ability, children who move well simply have a better view of themselves overall.

Naturally, those children who do go on to take part in sports, dance, or other physical activities requiring more complex skills will have an added advantage because mastering basic skills is essential to mastering later, more difficult movements. Not only will their confidence in their movement abilities lead them to take on greater physical challenges, but also it will keep them participating. Children and adolescents who drop out of sports think less of their abilities than those who stick with it. Most likely, the same can be said of those who withdraw from other physical experiences, like dancing and aerobics, as well.

Why should this matter? Well, among other things, the estimated annual cost of obesity in the United States is about 100 billion dollars 127 million dollars of which is related to obesity in children six to 17. And with obesity come the corresponding dangers of high blood pressure, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even cancer. A 1993 study showed that only tobacco cause more deaths per year than the nearly 300,000 deaths brought on by inactivity and poor nutrition. So, obviously, we want our children to get and stay active!

But for those who place greater importance on the functions of the mind than on the functions of the body, there's important news here, too: More movement makes smarter kids. Recent brain research has demonstrated a connection between the cerebellum, the part of the brain previously associated with motor control only, and such cognitive functions as memory, spatial orientation, attention, language, and decision making, among others. And that's not even all that the research shows!

There's no dearth of arguments with which to answer the question "Why are you doing this stuff?" Our job is to find as many of them as we can, backed up by research, and to make sure that parents and administrators hear them!

Rae Pica is a children's movement specialist and the author of Your Active Child (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Rae speaks to parent and education groups throughout North America. Visit her and read more articles at

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