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Physical development

JOHN WADSWORTH, GOLDSMITHS, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON | Permalink

Evidence from neuroscience suggests that physical and mental activity increases the number of connections in a young child’s developing brain and that most of these connections are established before they are six.

Young children who are provided with opportunities to explore their environment in all its dimensions through running, climbing and jumping are more likely to develop good spatial awareness than children who are limited in their movements. This is true of both girls and boys: it is as important for girls to have opportunities for climbing, exploring and experiencing the outdoors as it is for boys to draw or cut things out.

Building muscles and control

From birth, children are already beginning to explore their bodies and how they interact with the world around them. As they gain in muscle strength they become more capable of independent movement and develop more control over their physical movements. It is important that they are provided with opportunities to develop both small and large muscles. Simple movements like left to right, up and down and circular hand movements are essential building blocks for feeding themselves, drawing, writing or tying shoelaces. Similarly the bouncing movements of a pre-walker serve to strengthen muscles and improve balance.

As children develop they need more opportunities to develop both muscles and control. This can be supported by involving them in simple activities such as building with blocks, threading beads, drawing and painting, catching a ball, cutting up fruit, mixing cakes or cutting with scissors. All these activities help strengthen the muscles in the fingers, wrist and hands and also improve hand-eye co-ordination. Without them it becomes more difficult to develop the degree of control necessary to carry out more complex activities such as tying laces, buttoning coats or writing later on in life. Because children need time to develop good fine muscle control, it also makes sense to value these basic skills as much as the more complex ones. If a child is still at the ‘scribbling’ stage and has difficulty drawing a recognisable figure, they are going to find writing their name quite a challenge.

Exploration and climbing help physical skills and risk knowledge

In order to develop their large muscles, young children need to be physically active. It is natural for them to want to run, jump and climb. Through exploring their bodies in this way, young children develop their muscles and learn to understand their limits. Many parents worry when their children start climbing that they may climb too high and put themselves at risk. However, it is rare for children to climb higher than they feel comfortable with – they will only go ‘beyond their limits’ if encouraged and supported. It is important that fears about safety are not allowed to restrict a child’s opportunities to explore and test things out.

Risk is an essential part of life and learning your limits and going beyond them are important for developing resilience, something that they will need for later learning. In many societies, girls are seen as less capable or in greater need of protection, but in reality they need and benefit from the same amount of physical activity as boys. Young girls are generally physically stronger than boys and often have better-developed fine muscle control too. Limiting them to activities that are too safe or inactive restricts their physical development and reduces the opportunities for them to develop good spatial awareness.

Children are proud of new skills

Young children need plenty of opportunities to practise and develop their physical control – if left to their own devices they will tend to do this anyway. They are usually proud of their achievements and will demonstrate newly learned skills such as hopping or standing on both hands with one leg in the air, but all learning is more enjoyable if shared with an interested supportive adult. Some things, such as learning how to skip or throw and catch a ball, need some instruction and support.

Physical development in young children is a fairly rapid process with most children progressing through crawling to walking in about a year. By the age of five most children can run, hop, stop, turn, play with a ball, write and draw.

Exercise is good for us!

Children also need to be active for the sake of their health. An increasing number of children do not have access to sufficient opportunities to exercise and develop. A lack of exercise increases the risk of becoming overweight and the loss of general muscle tone. While this may not have an immediate impact it can result in increased risks to health in later life. By contrast, exercise increases the general level of health and contributes to a general sense of wellbeing.