Making the Connection

Library Home  >  Approaches to Early Childhood Education
  Published on Tuesday, 02 October 2018

Making the Connection

Library Home  >  Approaches to Early Childhood Education
  Published on Tuesday, 02 October 2018

In this article Sue McLaren, Director and Research Coordinator of the Animal Fun Program, at Curtin University discusses the connection between a child's motor development and their social and emotional health. Sue has a social science background and has 20 years of experience working with children and families. She has a keen interest in children with special needs and the benefits of early intervention.

The first year of life sees incredible development – from a new born infant who is reliant on others to meet all their needs to the inquisitive toddler – moving and exploring independently. During this 12-18 month period we see the child develop motor control in roughly the following sequence*:

  • 1 month: Holds chin up whilst on tummy on floor
  • 2 months: Holds chest up whilst on tummy on the floor
  • 4 months: Sitting with support
  • 5 months: Rolling over
  • 7 months: Sitting without support
  • 9 months: Standing with support
  • 10 months: Crawling
  • 11 months: Walks if led and standing without support
  • 12 months: Walking independently

*ages are just a general guide

What is rarely documented is exactly how many hours of practice is required for the infant to progress from one stage to the other – but we know that the practice is fairly constant during waking hours and even began in utero with kicking, waving of arms, twisting and turning.

Parents and caregivers are generally very watchful that babies achieve these milestones and give them plenty of opportunities to practice and refine the increased control they are gaining over their body. They do this by providing a stimulating sensory environment, lots of colourful toys, personal attachment through cuddling, feeding, bathing and nappy changing and an ever-increasing exposure to different sounds and tastes.

However, what often occurs is that as soon as an infant is walking independently, and perhaps getting into a bit of mischief, we often try to curtail that practice and restrict movement in favour of more sedentary pursuits. Focus can quickly shift from movement skills to cognitive skills as parents try to prepare their child for more formal learning by teaching colour, shape, number and letter.

As early childhood educators we need to very mindful that we are providing young children with as many opportunities to move as possible. This is known as Physical Activity (PA) and the recommendations are that children between the ages of 1-5 have at least 3 hours of PA every day.

Physical Activity can take many forms:

Vigorous active play:

  • Running
  • Chasing
  • Trampolining
  • Bike riding
  • Climbing
  • Swimming
  • Gymbaroo
  • Dancing

Gentle Active Play:

  • Digging in a sandpit
  • Water Play
  • Board games
  • Pretend Play

Active Transportation:

  • Walking
  • Scooter
  • Bike

Ideally, the 3 hours should be a combination of all three types of PA. When children are being physically active they are also stimulating other important areas of the brain such as the pre-frontal cortex (used for higher order thinking skills). Serotonin and Dopamine, the feel good hormones, are also released during physical activity. New neural pathways grow and strengthen with repetitive activity. Every time a child exercises their body they are also exercising their mind.

Australian Sedentary Behaviour guidelines for children between the ages of 2-5 recommends less than 1 hour of screen time per day. In a fast-changing technological world this can be a challenge – we suggest that parents use screen time in short 10-15 minute bursts when absolutely needed. Children should be encouraged to sit and play quietly, look at books, draw or listen to soothing music as rest time rather than be in front of a screen.

If children are not being provided with sufficient opportunities for PA then the muscle strength and conditioning that they worked so hard to develop in infancy will be lost – as we know that if we don’t use it we lose it.

Lack of PA and increased time being sedentary can lead to serious physical and mental health issues. Low muscle tone (floppy muscles) and poor core strength and stability can result in poor balance, more likelihood of falls and accidents, increased fatigue and withdrawal from physically active play. Children who don’t get the recommended amount of PA every day are at an increased risk of what was previously considered adult type diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, Cardio-vascular disease and obesity.

In order for children to be "school ready" they need to have well developed gross and fine motor skills as well as positive social and emotional regulation.

Improving gross motor skills has a huge impact on fine motor skill development. A child who is well balanced, strong and stable in the core is much more likely to be able to sit on a mat or in a chair, attend and listen, and have good motor control over writing and cutting tools once they begin more formal education. Conversely, children with poor gross motor skills will find it very difficult to sit still, attend or perform the fine motor tasks assigned and are much more likely to exhibit inattentive or hyperactive type behaviours.

As young children transition from the sensory play stage to pre-operational or pretend play it is important to provide them with opportunities for PA which appeal both to the senses and imagination.

To achieve this – get children outdoors.

The natural outdoor environment provides children with a wealth of opportunities for exploration, discovery and imagination.

Ensure you have a variety of surfaces to give little ones the chance to practice their walking and balancing:

  • Paths – hard, even, constant surfaces are good for beginners
  • Soft Fall – grass, sand, wood chips are more difficult and start to develop increased balance and strength in the muscles of the legs, ankles and feet
  • Balance Beams – low and stable graduating to higher and uneven
  • Stepping Stones – uniform height and distance apart to alternating up and down with varying distance apart

Make the practice of improving balance and stability more fun by becoming imaginative:

  • Perhaps you could be intrepid explorers looking for…tigers or butterflies
  • Dress up, take a few props with you such as magnifying glass, bug catchers outdoors to find insects
  • Use music with movement like singing “We’re going on a bear hunt” as you explore the outdoor environment
  • Use low balance beams as bridges across croc infested waters
  • Make believe that the climbing equipment in your centre is a pirate ship or fairy castle – Rescue the prisoners with a game of tag
  • Introduce children to games such as "What's the time Mr Wolf?” The creeping, running and freezing in place help children with their static and dynamic balance

Children love adults to join in their play – be an active participant and role model then gradually withdraw your attention from the activity so that the children play on their own.

Try to arrange the play space to allow for some vigorous PA – Chase, climbing, rolling and some areas for more imaginative gentle play and a couple of quiet areas for rest and relaxation.

Once children have good control and strength in their large muscles they are more likely to succeed with fine motor activities.

For very young children – developing the motor control required to manipulate tools is quite challenging as anyone who has watched a baby trying to feed himself will attest to. Hand to mouth can be a hit and miss effort, but once again with practice and perseverance the goal is eventually achieved.

By providing children with a variety of activities involving shape sorting, filling and emptying containers, simple puzzles, block building (and knocking down) we are helping them to achieve hand eye coordination, strength and control of the smaller muscles in the arms and fingers.

Old fashioned board games and playing cards also provide lots of opportunities to practice motor control and pro social behaviours:

  • Keeping the dice roll on the board
  • Moving pieces with a 1:1 correspondence
  • Dealing out cards
  • Matching suits/number
  • Holding cards in one hand while choosing with the other
  • Turn taking
  • Coping with winning and losing

Children should also be encouraged to improve their self-help skills in regard to dressing and feeding wherever possible to ensure that they are school ready.

Scaffold this by starting the process and asking the child to finish while providing verbal cues so that they begin to form an internal dialogue for motor planning. Demonstrate snapping the top of a banana but asking the child to complete the peel. Open one side of a snap lock lunch box and ask the child to do the other one.

Research tells us that children who have poorly developed motor skills also perceive themselves as being less competent and having fewer playmates than their peers. If children don't feel confident about joining in with playground games they are more likely to be isolated and victims of bullying. This can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, internalising behaviours and a reluctance to participate and make friends. We are social animals and feeling socially included and connected is a very important aspect of our mental health – throughout the lifespan.

There are very clear links between a child’s motor development and their social/emotional development. Helping children to identify and understand their feelings is an important skill in dealing with the emotions. Sometimes children who have difficulty with their motor skills also have difficulty in recognising different emotions in others and therefore don't always respond appropriately.

As caregivers it is important to model and name the different emotions you experience throughout the day and bring the child’s attention to your face and body language. You can also role model appropriate self regulation behaviours by explaining to the child that you are going to calm down by taking five big deep breaths or by going to a quiet place to do a gentle activity such as read a book. Sometimes – some vigorous movement can also be a great way to help dissipate very strong emotions. Help children to identify their own positive and negative emotions throughout the day – don’t just focus on the negative emotions.

In 2007, a team of researchers from Curtin University, led by Emeritus Professor Jan Piek conducted a project in a regional centre in Western Australia to examine if a child’s motor skill had any impact on their social/emotional development. Typically, we would expect to find about 10 per cent of a normative sample to have some difficulty with their motor skills but in this instance, results showed that 34 per cent of the 5 year old cohort had either below average or well below average motor skills and high levels of internalising behaviours such as anxiety and depression.

This was an alarming result as these children were only 5 years of age, so the teachers challenged the research team to create a developmentally appropriate movement program for this age group which met the EYLF and NQF in addition to the Australian Curriculum for Health and PE. To this point most research on how motor ability impacted on academic achievement and psycho-social health had focused on school aged children and adolescents, so the research team was very interested to see if an early intervention program could in fact improve motor skills so that a child could have the very best start to their formal schooling experience.

Together with a team of physiotherapists, occupational therapists and psychologists from Curtin University Health Sciences Faculty the idea for Animal Fun was born. The aim of the program was to make movement fun for kids and simple to use for educators. By tapping into children's love of animals and imaginative play the task was to match key skills such as balance, trunk control and stability, large muscles strength, motor sequencing, motor planning, small muscle control to various animal movements. The program consists of 9 modules – 4 dedicated to gross motor skills, 4 to fine motor skills and 1 to social and emotional development.

Once finalised the Animal Fun program was tested for efficacy with a three-year randomised controlled trial funded by Healthway. Over 500 children and families took part in the project from 12 schools around Western Australia. Results showed that the program was indeed effective with those children who participated for just 1 term showing significant improvement in motor skills, balance and social skills with a significant decrease in hyperactive and inattentive behaviours when compared to the children in the control schools.

Animal Fun is now being implemented in over 2000 early childhood centres, schools and by allied health professionals who work with young children both nationally and internationally.

The key message is that planning and providing children with a large variety of movement opportunities every day is crucial for not only their physical development but also for their social and emotional development. Physically fit, strong, healthy, active children are more likely to be socially competent, have a positive sense of self and be better prepared for formal learning once they enter school. Increasing PA and decreasing sedentary behaviours in the early years is absolutely vital.

For more information on the Animal Fun Program visit Animal Fun or contact the Program Director and Research Coordinator, Sue McLaren, by email sue@animalfun.com.au or call 0409 942 182.

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 03 February 2020



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