Being physically active is an important part of growing healthy children. Building an early foundation of physical activity is critical to being active throughout life but may require more than just spending time outdoors running and playing. Children need to build strength, learn basic fundamental movement skills and also develop their perceptual motor skills.
Unlike fundamental movement skills that form the building blocks for movement, such as hopping, jumping, running or balance, perceptual motor development connects a children's perceptual or sensory skills (the brain) to their motor skills (the body) so they can perform a variety of movements and confidently interact with their environment (1). Developing perceptual motor skills involves teaching children movements related to time (e.g. moving fast vs slow), direction (moving forward, back or to the side) and spatial awareness (e.g. crossing their arm from the right side of the body to the left or tapping their heel to the ground).
Preschoolers are still in Jean Piaget’s pre-operational stage of development. They think in symbols, are developing memory, imagination and their thinking is egocentric and based on intuition not logic so they cannot yet grasp complex concepts such as direction, spatial awareness and speed variance (fast or slow). Perceptual motor development involves brain functions necessary to plan and make decisions from simple to more complex. Building perceptual motor skills allows children to practice these complex and unfamiliar tasks such as stepping back without looking or touching the right hand to the left knee (spatial awareness). Mastery of these perceptual motor skills sets a foundation for being more active and completing important day-to-day activities independently while preparing to read, write and master more complex skills. Young children need to be taught and provided with opportunities to practice perceptual motor skills; they do not just occur overnight (2). Waiting until elementary school (when specific sports and other physical activities are introduced) to teach motor skills to the child contributes to her lack of self-efficacy and consequently their ability to successfully participate. Children who do not develop these skills in their early years will eventually gravitate away from active sports, games and dance towards less threatening sedentary hobbies (3).
Note: Children need to be taught and given opportunities to develop these skills. If you have concerns about a child's physical development or ability to complete skills and tasks, consult with the child's physician.
Children need to understand directional instructions in order to perform most physical activities. Understanding directions verbally is the first step. “Which way is forward?” “Where is backwards?” “Can you point to the side?” Once children know the direction they are moving, the next step is ensuring that they move into space with ease and confidence. Practice having a child walk backwards on a painted line or step to the side while looking straight ahead. Children often step in the right direction of the command without actually stepping sideways or backwards (e.g. the child turns around and takes a step while facing the intended direction instead of stepping backwards).
Children need to be taught skills that connect the brain to the body through varying speeds of movement. Children often have difficulty detecting differences in speed. Slow movement might be interpreted as smaller motions, while fast movements might be interpreted as larger motions. Learning to distinguish and practice the difference can help improve brain function and skill development. Try playing Red Light, Green Light or Simon Says and use both fast and quick movements or slow motion actions.
This is one of the most difficult concepts for young children to grasp. Children tend to stand or sit close to each other because they haven’t learned spatial awareness. We often teach children to create a bubble around themselves when we want them to spread out. Spatial awareness simply means being aware of where your body is as it moves about in space. Closing your eyes and then touching your nose with your finger requires understanding spatial awareness.
For children, this can be taught by practicing moving their body up high or down low to experience different spatial directional movements; swinging their hips or shrugging their shoulders to learn to isolate or pinpoint specific areas of the body to move; or touching the right hand to the left knee to master crossing the midline of their body. Crossing the midline (vertical imaginary wall that separates the two sides of the body) is not only a physical challenge, it is also a brain development challenge. Crossing the midline of the body can improve literacy and reading skills (4,5) which require writing numbers and letters and moving the eyes from left to right.
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Lindsay, A. and Byington, T., 2020, Perceptual Motor Development | Connecting the Brain & the Body, Extension, University of Nevada, Reno, FS-20-18
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