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ECE Resources

Children need to move to learn

Our webinar with Gill Connell, a globally recognised child development expert specialising in the foundations of learning through movement and play, explores the role movement plays in young children’s development through to age 7. It focuses on the importance of supporting the range of gross and fine motor skills that children need to build their brains and provide a foundation for learning. 

The key insights from this webinar are: 

The development of movement is key to brain development. The brain has five distinct layers which develop from the bottom up, and movement is key to the development of the first three layers. The first part, the brain stem, houses primitive reflexes that are the beginnings of movement. The next layer is where the senses are located, which support children in thinking about and finding out about the world. These senses include a sense of balance (the vestibular system) and proprioception (body awareness used to coordinate movement). The third layer, the cerebellum, is the part of the brain that stores muscle memory of all physical motor movements and fundamental movement patterns.  

In the early years, the emphasis of development is on the lower levels of the brain and the automation of movement. Physical activity will always take priority over other tasks until children have reached a stage in which they have automated all the lower levels. Automation means an ability to perform movements without thinking about them. For example, once we have mastered the movements needed for driving a car, we can do them without too much conscious thought. Young children, who are still developing automation, may need to devote their entire attention to performing a practical physical task and may not be able to focus on anything else. Children need to play, to have real experiences and get their fingers dirty, and to repeat movements over and over again in order to develop automation of a variety of movements and strengthen the muscle memory of the cerebellum. Automation of physical movement is very important for later success in the classroom, as it enables children to concentrate fully on classroom tasks and activities. 

Physical skills develop in a hierarchical manner aligned with the development of the brain. Handwriting, for example, is a physical skill achieved through the coordination of different types of movement which begin in infancy with the palmar grasp reflex. Sensory experience, including massage, finger play, and sensory play, help to integrate the reflex. Then muscle memory development occurs, beginning with gross motor skills (pushing, pulling, hanging, and other weightbearing activities). Children also need to develop the ability to cross the body’s midline.  

Children develop physical skills at different times and in different orders. Understanding the way that movement skills evolve can help you to provide the right experiences for children’s level of development. An example of the ‘stepping stones’ of movement development can be found in A Moving Child is a Learning Child or in Gill’s slides here.  

Children need a well-balanced physical ‘diet’ of activities and opportunities. The kinetic scale of movement experiences can be viewed in Move, Play and Learn with Smart Steps or on Gill’s slides here. Certain kinds of movement patterns help with different parts of a child’s development: 

  • Sensory processing is supported through the provision of visual, auditory, and tactile experiences. 
  • Balance is developed through experiences such as rolling, spinning, going upside down, and rocking. Using the vestibular system (rocking and tipping side to side) can also be very calming and help to regulate children. Balance activities will help children who are wrigglers and who fidget or have difficulty focusing and concentrating (the most advanced form of balance is sitting still!). 
  • Proprioception is developed through experiences in which children have to fit their bodies through things and around things, name and use different body parts, and discover how much force or muscle strength to exert to move something. Children who are clumsy, or who come too close to others, need more body awareness activities.  
  • Power includes agility, flexibility, and the ability to move in lots of different ways. Activities might include introducing children to the different movement patterns of animals, such as the same-sided movement of bears, or the front-to-back movement of caterpillars. Activities that require physical exertion help children develop stamina.  
  • Coordination enables children to do one thing with one part of their body while another part does something else (like patting their head while rubbing their tummy), as well as to cross the midline.  
  • Control, which involves an ability to adjust the dynamics of movement, performing movements quickly or slowly, on their tiptoes, loudly or quietly. 

The movement nutrition experiences on the kinetic scale can be used to guide planning for physical experiences. Expensive equipment is not necessary, but it is important is to think about how children will practise each of the movement nutrition skills, and how you can make the activity fit the child’s needs (rather than make the child fit the activity). For example, you might provide a low beam for children to move across in different ways. Some might crawl and slide, getting down low for easier balance, while others might enjoy the challenge of finding a variety of ways to cross the beam (balance and control). Children with excellent balance might put a bean bag on their head! 

Language development is intimately related to movement development. It is only through physical experience that children come to understand the language that accompanies that experience. Physical experiences can help children understand the meanings of words in different contexts. For example, top, bottom, under, over and through all have a different meaning depending on their context (‘top of your head’ versus ‘top of your toe’ versus ‘top of your page’).  

Think ‘Pause, Prompt, Praise’ to support children’s movement skills. Many children can be successful when figuring out movements for themselves, but other children may be reluctant to try and so need support. In this case, first pause – observe the child and give them time to figure out what to do for themselves before offering assistance. Then prompt. For example, if you notice a child climbing up a ladder and then stopping and starting to come back down, you might say ‘How about if I hold you round your waist? Would you like to go that little bit further?’ Finally, praise can help children to gain confidence and to identify the important parts of the movement. For example, if you praise the way they lifted their leg high for that movement then they are more likely to remember to do that again next time.  

Further reading 

Connell, G., & McCarthy, C. (2013). A Moving Child is a Learning Child: How the Body Teaches the Brain to Think. Free Spirit Publishing. 

Connell, G., McCarthy, C., & Pirie, W. (2016). Move, Play and Learn with Smart Steps. Free Spirit Publishing.  

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

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