Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A.R.C.H. - Athletics, Movement and Play?

In the last post we discussed that play is "pleasurable and pointless" but essential for children. For the next two posts we will be discussing active, physical play.

If asked about your child's activity level you would probably talk to me about a team sport he has joined. However, team sports might be the least important form of physical play for the 4 to 8 yo age group!  Today we'll look at the difference between sports and movement and how both can be integrated into our child's life. Tomorrow we will finally talk about real physical play and just how crucial it is.

Team Sports

I am putting this first because there are key misunderstandings about kids in early childhood and team sports. In her book, A Running Start, Rae Pica (my review of her book is here) draws from over 20 years of experience with kids and movement. She insists that team sports are NOT play for a young child.  They are trying to follow the rules, master their bodies and do it in front of an audience (often a very vocal one).  This is actually a stress inducing experience for many children. Honestly, young children are just not physically and mentally able to do many of the things required for a team at this age.  The APA recommends children don't start team sports until age 6, Pica says that 8 is probably more appropriate. Angela Hanscom in Balanced and Barefoot shares that "60% of boys and 47% of girls in the United States are on a sports team by the age of 6."

Why would you delay something that seems to be such a part of being a kid and teaches great values and gets them active? In large part because young children simply are not physical mature enough to do many of the fundamental moves involved in team sports. Pica includes this outline of some of the moves children might need to master and when most children can do them:
eye- hand or eye- foot coordination - 9 or 10 years old
distinguish an object from its surroundings - 8 to 12 years old
depth perception - around 12
understand rules, strategies and tactics - 10 years old 
Many children under 8 simply don't have the coordination and focus to be successful in these pursuits, especially in the middle of a game.  They will do their best to please the adults around them, but at what expense?  

Pica also emphasizes that many coaches don’t focus on the fundamentals. At this age, kids need clear, step by step, skill building instruction and time to learn.  Often, in the rush to “play the game” fundamentals are not the focus.  Of course, there are exceptions (I would say my brother’s teams are that) to all of these statements. However, many of the things we think are cute (or frustrating) on the ball field are really kids showing us they aren't prepared for this type of activity. If you choose to put your kids in sports at a younger age (we start soccer at 5) make sure that they are having fun with it and that they are learning the fundamentals of the game.  

I grew up in a family of athletes.  I believe in the value of team sports. In fact, most children should play a team sport at some point in their life.  However, earlier is not better in this situation. The better experience is to wait until they have the maturity - physically and emotionally - to handle the situation. 

A physically active child who has well rounded movement development and none of the baggage associated with failure in sports will pick up a sport, learn it quickly and move forward. Pica highlights numerous professional athletes who started "late" (meaning in middle school and beyond).  Tiger Woods is not a poster child for normal athletic development!  

So, what else qualifies as physical activity and play?  


Pica does a great job distinguishing between athletics and movement.  Both are important, but at this early age she emphasizes movement.  Most children do not ever perfect basic movements like walking, running, galloping, jumping rope, throwing, bike riding, spinning, skipping and other physical tasks.  They need instruction, practice and time to develop these skills.  If there is still P.E. in your local school than kids are getting some instruction in these areas. A quick anecdote illustrates the point about athletics versus movement.  One blogger tells of a 12 year old neighborhood basketball champ who attempted their "jedi training camp" which required balance and coordination.  He couldn't do it.   This was her take away 
This wonderful athlete lacks total physical development. He is so driven on the basketball court and so focused on developing those sport-specific skills that he has neglected the development of other general elements such as balance and core strength. 
In the second half of early childhood is the perfect time to help develop this overall body awareness and strength. There are some things that you can do (inside) at home to encourage movement, although outside provides many more opportunities (more on that later).

  1. Agility Ladders - A physical therapist friend of mine encourages using agility ladders.  When kids are young just let them jump, walk and tiptoe.  As they get older you can create more difficult combinations.
  2. Dance - Regardless of how you feel on the dance floor, grooving with your kids is a great way to get your whole body moving.  There are lots of silly songs for kids out there to encourage all types of movement.  Jim Gill is one of our current favorites.
  3. Yoga - This can help your kids learn more about breathing, stretching and the amazing ways a body can move.  There are some “yoga stories” on you tube that include different moves.  We have the Yoga Pretzel cards and try different positions. As always, preview the materials to make sure you are comfortable sharing them with your children.
  4. Fundamentals - Take time to teach your child how to throw, stand on one foot and balance, jump rope, ride a bike.  As they get older they can start doing sit ups, planks, push ups and similar core strengthening movements.
  5. Rebounder - This “mini trampoline” can provide lots of ways to get your extra wiggles out.

Movement at School

Unfortunately, in an attempt to find more time to do academic work - play, recess and physical education are being removed from schools (according to Hanscom about 40% have reduced or eliminated recess and that was in the late 1990's, changes have increased that number).  Michael Gurian's Boys and Girls Learn Differently explains how physical activity leads to BETTER THINKING for boys. Here is a quick overview of his suggestions for teachers and schools and some of the basic physical differences between boys and girls that impact learning (including room temperature, noise level and obviously - movement).  Girls benefit from movement in the classroom, but boys NEED it.  

What happens when boys have too much pent up energy?  Sax explains why his practice has seen a sharp rise in requests to medicate young children in Boys Adrift.  I've had friends debate whether they should medicate a 6 year old child. I don't want to enter this debate but I do want show how the two are tied together. Granted, some children truly need assistance; however, many are just acting their age and trying to get their need for physical stimulation and play met in the best way they know how.

Rae Pica has numerous books that teachers can use to integrate movement with content area subjects (like science and reading). For younger children, A Moving Child is a Learning Child is a great resource. It describes the normal progression of movement for children from holding her head up to crossing the midline (a HUGE deal for so many academic skills) with excellent pictures. I plan to trace my own kids and make sure they have mastered all of the steps. Connell and McCarthy also developed the "kinetic scale" which connects different types of movement activities with your child's overall development. It is color coded and easy to understand with plenty of ideas about how to encourage these key milestones in a child's development- a great resource.

Helping at School

If you have an active kiddo try to see if your child can use a fidget buster at their desk.  For larger body movement the stability wobble cushion or bouncy bands for their chair might help.  You might also try to see if the teacher is familiar with brain breaks (a book) or search for brain breaks on pinterest or elsewhere.

Children who move are trying to problem solve. Often when kids seem distracted they truly are listening (this happens when we read aloud around here all the time); they need movement to help them focus. Teachers are tasked with managing up to 25 or 30 students at a time. Be pro-active with your child; introduce breathing techniques, the magic moustache (and others), doodling paper  or less obvious movements that the child can do in their own seat or as they are allowed to move around the classroom.  

When kids get home they have been holding in their wiggles ALL DAY.  Try your best to allow them time to choose their own active play (shoot baskets, toss beanbags, wrestle). Very young children often just need to sleep! Also do your best to make studying active and game like - if possible.

Unfortunately, recess and the games allowed while at recess (no more balls or tag at some schools!) are severely limited. However, schools with more recess also have more focused students.  If your child isn't getting recess, consider fighting for it. P.E. is adult led while recess should be child led play. Teaching students about their physical development and helping them gain control of their bodies is important, but it isn't play. A well rounded physical education should include both P.E. and recess.

Any type of activity that primarily follows adult instruction DOES NOT COUNT AS PLAY. Therefore, none of the discussion in this post counts as play! However, many of us think of it as play in our own lives. Kids needs are different - especially at this young age.

Tomorrow we will discuss just how crucial OUTSIDE, PHYSICAL PLAY is for young children.

Food for thought:
After school is a tough time to allow for play. What are ways your children can safely get out energy in your house or backyard? Can you adjust your schedule so that they can get to a place to play (and people to play with) more regularly?

Did you find strategies to teach your child so that they can release some energy even if they aren't supposed to wiggle?

Which is more important for 4 to 8 yo children - free time active play or a team sport? Think about your week. How much of each does your child get?

If you are involved in sports, what are the benefits you hoped they would gain from the experience? Is that happening in the league, team, and with the coach that you have?

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