Gone are the days of opening your door and sending your children outside to play for hours on end. Lifestyles have changed tremendously in recent years and our children’s activities have been affected. When the American Academy of Pediatrics released its’ “Back to Sleep” policy to help reduce the incidence of SIDS, parents and caregivers were less aware of the second part of the campaign title, “Tummy to Play”. Tummy time is an essential part of your infants’ day; they should acclimate to this position as early in life as possible. We know earliest learning is based on motor development. Infants are now spending 60 hours per week of waking time “containerized” – an alarming rate! Providing more movement opportunities such as reaching, stretching, and manipulating will help to build strong muscles. Creeping and crawling is known to activate both sides of the brain – an important exercise!
Toddlers too need safe opportunities to explore their environment and use their bodies in ways that improve coordination and strengthen muscles. Toddlers cannot resist the urge to climb and we should encourage the opportunity to perfect this emerging skill. According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, our little ones should accumulate at least 30 minutes of structured activity and up to several hours per day of daily, unstructured physical activity. Playing hide and seek, participating in running and jumping exercises in addition to dancing and climbing will develop physical coordination and have a positive impact on their social/emotional development.
Movement has much to offer in the development of the cognitive domain also. When young children move their bodies, they are simultaneously stimulating the corresponding areas of the brain that relate to abstract thinking. Preschoolers need time, space and opportunity for movement – it develops the “whole” child and feeds the brain! Climbing on jungle gyms, wheelbarrow walking, crawling through tunnels and around obstacles and working at the easel all help to develop their shoulders and upper arm muscles, which will in turn strengthen the fine motor muscles needed for handwriting. Children learn from concrete to abstract and their bodies provide the most concrete experience available for planning and organizational skills. A child must first experience controlling his body in space before he can organize pictures and letters on a page. Using their bodies to form letter shapes, measuring objects in relation to their bodies, and following directions while moving to Simon Says are all concrete learning experiences. As Carla Hannaford states in her book, Smart Moves , “movement activates the neural wiring throughout the body, making the whole body the instrument of learning”.
Bottom line is we can all benefit from more opportunities to move! You can serve as a role model to your children and take part in physical activity yourself. And be cautious about too much structured, adult-directed games for young children – they often require much more “waiting time” than the desired outcome of movement and exercise. Remember if it’s not in the hand and body, it’s not in the brain!