“If you do not change direction, you may land up where you are heading.”Lao Tzu
Thinking back on my own childhood, one of my most favourite pastimes was feeling airborne, on the wings of our garden swing – a sloppy, ropey contraption that hung off our Jacaranda tree. So, when children ask me to push them on our swings at school, I race them to the swing-set and delight in their enjoyment of moving through space and time.
Last week, standing in front of the swing, I was asked by the children to push them sideways – so they could ‘wobble’ rather than glide. Well, that was a first! “Sideways – are you sure?” I asked. “Yes! Sideways,” they sang back. And so, sideways it was. Their eyes lit up, their smiles grew, and their knuckles turned white as they held on tight. They swayed and bobbed; they laughed out loud. This novel way of being on a swing got me thinking – a lot!
We know now that the purpose of a young child’s body is not only to carry around his or her brain, but rather a way to enhance and nurture brain function. In fact, children need to master their bodies in order to learn effectively; by building capacity to control, coordinate and balance, children will develop important neural pathways, laying the groundwork for creative, complex and critical thinking. “Fundamentally,” says Preston Blackburn, creator of the Pop, Hop and Rock Program, “children need to be physically literate in order to be academically literate.” When young children are given opportunities to hone their large motor skills, they will have greater chance of success socially, emotionally and cognitively.
It is no coincidence that in an Early Years setting, the outdoor environment is a pivotal and integral part of the day-to-day program – children are encouraged to climb and swing, to dig and drag, to build and run, jump and stomp. They are invited to crawl and creep, to leap and land. They carry buckets full of sand and water, they move logs and planks, they bounce balls and ride bikes; they try to fly, to catch, squeeze, peer and collect. The combination of these experiences is designed to enhance their skills and push their capacity to the next level.
Crawling into a tunnel gives the children an experience of through; playing limbo, will give their body and brain a notion of being under; jumping from stone to stone informs their body and brain about being agile; and climbing up a ladder helps the child to master sequencing, balance and reaching a goal. These learning opportunities are not as incidental as one might imagine, but rather deliberately on offer, purposefully planned and choreographed by educators.
Moreover, the children’s sensory intake of the world around them is further fuel for their brain’s development. Through measure and understanding, children come to know if they need to turn the volume up, or lessen their grip, squint away from the bright light, and catch their breath after a game of catches. Children learn to navigate the auditory inputs, the visual outputs, they come to know their own strength and the feeling of accomplishment when they have been brave and bold in a first attempt to slide down the slippery dip. Regulating these sensory experiences will help a child to focus, to concentrate, attend and be present when it matters.
Combining upper and lower body movements, building physical strength and dexterity, will grow a child’s sense of self, build his confidence, and allow for him to become self-reliant and independent. As her coordination grows and her willingness to practice balancing on that beam, a child will start to integrate her body’s movements and functions – working towards these becoming automated and reliable. Later, these dependable all-of-body skills are so well assimilated, that children are able to focus on new challenges whilst unconsciously making use of their functioning bodies.
Crossing the midline, co-ordinating hands and eyes, standing on one leg and moving through space at different speeds are all complex developmental objectives, that we know, once acquired, will ensure a far more successful learning journey for any child.
The great news is, it is never too late to increase our capacity in our physical literacy. In fact, when adults do improve their physical literacy, they usually report their ability to concentrate, to focus and to be present increases, and their enjoyment and motivation to learn new concepts and grow in their thinking becomes more evident and possible.
So, when next you see your child climb to the top of the frame, hang upside down, or, belly-flop into a pool or roll around in the sand, know that they are, in fact, preparing their brain to become host to some really important and significant achievements, something way beyond what any of us might have ever imagined.
About the author
Cathy Milwidsky is the Director of Early Learning and Development at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW