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It seems Madagascar’s King Julien was on to something! It turns out that “moving it” as the lemur king famously sings, can play a vital role in not only building children’s movement skills but also their cognitive, social and emotional skills as well.
Most early interactions involve movement, making its development one of the most important aspects of a child’s life, according to Dr Melissa Licari, Lecturer in Motor Control and Development at the University of Western Australia.
Walking, talking, drinking from a cup, doing up a zip, drawing, and catching a ball are just some of the movements that most children will acquire in the first few years of life.
Early experience is vital to this critical period of brain organisational development, and exposure to movement is not only important for building the foundations needed to successfully perform movement skills, it also assists in the development of cognitive, social and emotional skills too.
Dr Licari says that while many believe children automatically acquire movement skills as their bodies mature and develop, it is not that simple. Acquisition of movement requires exposure and experience.
So the simplest and most important reason children should be encouraged to move is to ensure they develop the movement skills needed to navigate the world, along with acquiring foundation movements that are needed to perform more complex skills as they get older.
“The brain is truly remarkable. As an infant grows and experiences the world, the cells in the brain (called neurons) make trillions of connections,” says Dr Licari.
“In the first five years, a child’s brain will develop more than any other time in their life. It is the period in which the foundation of the brain is established.
“Early experience is vital to this critical period of brain organisational development, and exposure to movement is not only important for building the foundations needed to successfully perform movement skills, it also assists in the development of cognitive, social and emotional skills too.
“Movement is the only way we can interact with the world around us and our brain is integral for enabling us to move.”
Dr Licari says that unlike some animals which are born able to “locomote” such as a giraffe, human baby’s brains are not fully developed and so they need to move to form those critical connections.
“We have to continue to move to ensure the right connections are maintained and reach their optimal efficiency,” she says.
“Children need to learn how to control muscle contractions, large muscles in their trunk, arms and legs to run, jump and kick. They need to learn how to control the muscles in their fingers and hands to colour, write and button a shirt. They also need to learn how to control the muscles in their face, jaw and tongue to speak. This would not be achievable without our brain, but it also would not be achievable without exposure and interaction to help form those important early connections.”
Children are leading more sedentary lives, spending more time engaging in screened-based activity and this is reducing the amount of time they would normally spend engaging in movement and active play.
Children who are competent and confident movers are more likely to continue moving and be active throughout their life, and this is important when we consider all the health consequences associated with sedentary and inactive lifestyles.
Dr Licari says this puts them at greater risk of obesity and exclusion.
“Alarmingly, 1 in 4 children1 in Australia are currently overweight or obese, with these children at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions, cardiovascular disease, along with reduced self-esteem and depression.
“Additionally, children who have difficulty participating in activities and sports with their peers are more likely to withdraw or be excluded, and this too can have detrimental impacts on a child’s confidence and self-esteem.
“Children who are competent and confident movers are more likely to continue moving and be active throughout their life, and this is important when we consider all the health consequences associated with sedentary and inactive lifestyles.
“Children can learn so much about the world through movement and active play. Not only can it play an important role in the development of cognitive concepts including early numeracy and literacy, it also helps develop social and emotional skills like confidence and cooperation.
“Children enjoy being active and an essential component of being active is movement.”
Dr Licari says children acquire movement skills at their own pace and substantial delays in acquisition or atypical movement patterns can be early signs that your child may have a movement difficulty or related condition that may impact on their development.
Some of the signs include significant delays in their achievement of motor milestones (e.g. lifting their head, rolling, sitting, reaching and grasping, crawling, standing, walking, talking), excessive floppiness, tightness or weakness in the muscles, jerkiness in their movement, or a sudden decline in their movement (i.e. not been able to perform things they once could).
From birth to two years an infant transitions from being dominated by reflexes to being able to sit, walk, talk, scribble with a crayon, and starting to feed themselves with a fork and spoon. There is a lot of natural variation between infants as they acquire these skills, with some skills like independent walking displayed as early as 8 months in some infants and 18 months in others. The World Health Organisation (2006) provides guideline for the windows of achievement for different motor milestones.
From three to five years children are developing a range of different skills, including basic fundamental movement skills, along with more advanced manipulative skills and speech patterns. They are much more coordinated in high energy activities like running, jumping and climbing, will be beginning to draw recognisable pictures and shapes (e.g. circles, stick figure person), be working towards independence with their eating and dressing skills (e.g. putting on a sock or shoe), and be socialising and engaging in activity with other children. Ensure your child is exposed to as many of these skills and activities as possible and encourage them to try having a turn on their own.
“Sometimes parents tend to fall into the trap of doing everything for their child because it is much faster, but they need the opportunity to practice and experience performing different movements themselves to acquire them,” Dr Licari says.
“If you are providing your child with plenty of opportunity, but they still continue to have difficulty over an extended period of time, it is then the time to reach out for help.
“Parents often become concerned when they see other children walking, talking, drinking from a cup or catching a ball earlier than their child.
“While all children develop at different rates, it is important to talk with your doctor or child health nurse if you have any concerns about your child’s development.
“They will be able to evaluate your child’s progress and refer you to a developmental paediatrician, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, clinical psychologist, exercise physiologist or other allied health professional if required. Getting help early can make a real difference.”
"Movement is very important in a child's development," says Tara Neven, a Matt Fiddes martial arts coach. Tara says incorporating movement into the routine and activities of a child, right from birth, can help with the development of everything from fine and gross motor skills to critical thinking and focus.
"Look for a moment to a child's future," she says.
"Movement, when incorporated into the routine and used to enhance the learning and development opportunities a child is exposed to, helps them lock in the information; essentially, what is happening is we are live wiring the information the brain is taking in all through movement.
"Our brain is the best learning machine and it works best when information is delivered and accepted with movement.
"Think about it, a child might learn something, but they don't really understand it – it doesn't really lock in – until they apply the task … until they actually DO it."
Neven has become a fierce advocate for the integration of movement into the thinking and pedagogy around early learning and development.
She says the rise of screen time has reached almost-epidemic proportions and the move toward a latent, less active lifestyle is attributable to a number of modern maladies.
Posture, motor skills, coordination, core strength, left and right differentiation, and cross-body coordination were all impacted by sedentary activities and habits in the early years.
"As we are seeing kids doing less and less, there is not the opportunity to move across the midline. That means we see difficulty in children knowing which is their left and right foot, and a lot of kids simply don't have the capacity to do midline crossing.
"Activities such as climbing, throwing and catching and just having a sense of themselves and where they are, the space they occupy and in relation to other things – they are all issues which arise as a result."
University of the Sunshine Coast Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Dr Rachael Sharman agrees.
Dr Sharman says we have seen the emergence of what she calls an altered childhood, with the use of screens and acceptance of a more sedentary lifestyle.
She says such is the shift, that our children's disposition was at odds with what has been thousands of years of evolution.
"Look, you just don't fight evolution. You will lose," Dr Sharman said.
"We have a responsibility to get them off screens, get them out playing and get them interacting with each other."
Dr Sharman says movement is critically important in children's development; with benefits which cross physiological, emotional, learning and psychological bounds.
"We have evolved and we were made to be active – and be doing physical labour – as children. Once children would have been out learning to hunt and gather from a young age. They were active and that's how we were made.
"We now have a very altered environment and everything from motor skills to mental health problems are the result.
"What we are doing now contradicts our biological template."
Dr Melissa Licari’s 6 top tips for keeping children active
- Be an active role model. Engage in activity with your child. Active parents = active children.
- Minimise time spent in sedentary behaviour. Put limits on screen time (i.e., use a timer). Encourage your child to engage in active play, especially during the day when they can be outside. Parents often feel obliged to fill their backyards with play equipment, but children often get the most enjoyment out of inexpensive items like ribbons, balloons, bubbles, bean bags, hoops, empty cardboard boxes and balls.
- Instruct by showing, not telling. Imitation of observed behaviour is a child’s primary mechanism of learning, mirroring the actions they see.
- Positive praise. Positive reinforcement helps children feel good about themselves, boosting self-esteem and confidence, along with the motivation to engage in the activity again.
- Playgrounds are great places to visit for active play where children can run, jump, slide and climb.
- Engaging in movement-related activity should not be a chore. Keep it fun!
24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years
For the Early Years (0-5 years) there is the Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years (birth to 5 years): An Integration of Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Sleep:
- Under 1: encourage activity throughout the day, with at least 30 minutes of tummy time per day if the child is not yet mobile. It is recommended that children not be restrained (i.e., stroller, car seat, high chair) for more than 1 hour at a time. Sleep 14-17 hours for 0-3 month olds, 12-16 hours for 4-11 month olds.
- 1-2 years: At least 180 minutes spent in active play throughout the day, not being restrained for more than 1 hour at a time, sedentary screen time is not recommended, 11-14 hours sleep.
- 3-5 years: At least 180 minutes spent in active play throughout the day, of which 60 minutes should be energetic play, not being restrained for more than 1 hour at a time, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour, 10-13 hours of sleep.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. Overweight and obesity in Australia: a birth cohort analysis. Cat. no. PHE 215. Canberra: AIHW.