Think of children playing. It’s almost impossible not to imagine them in action. Why? It’s because play is synonymous with exploration and discovery, and how can we explore and experiment without moving our bodies?
Yet, nowadays, with technological advances and the development of mobile devices, many play activities are becoming increasingly sedentary and structured, at the expense of social or creative play.
Recent research tells us that children’s motor development is strongly correlated with cognitive, social and emotional development. The research began with Piaget, who talked about sensorimotor development, and continued through to the latest findings on embodied cognition, which suggest that the process of cognitive understanding of the external world is shaped by our body and action. Motor activity is therefore a true learning activity. Just think how many times before using a toy, children toss it, bang it, taste it, shake it, and so on.
Playing! What is its main purpose?
Through movement children discover the space around them, explore distances and develop their body’s perception of small and large spaces. That’s why children often love to hide under the table or a chair in search of a quiet spot. It feels a safe, protected and familiar territory to them.
Motor activity promotes healthy motor, cognitive and perceptual development, it helps build personal identity and is an effective tool for the child’s overall development as it leads to higher self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy. Children will thus perceive that they have accomplished their task, gaining greater self-awareness and awareness of their own skills.
When do the first actual movements begin? Let’s take a look at the main stages of children’s motor development.
Even before the baby is born, we see the first movements of the upper limbs, which we refer to as foetal motor activity, i.e., the infants’ ability to perform their very first movements inside the mother’s womb.
As soon as they are born, babies make repetitive movements with their hands and feet, called primitive reflexes. These movements are needed to sustain the newborn’s vital functions, such as temperature control and feeding, for example.
From the second to third month, their movements become more voluntary. During this stage it’s important to show the baby some stimulating, colourful toys that make sounds. You can lay them out in a circle on a big carpet and let the baby move around from one to the other on his/her own.
In subsequent months, they start rolling over, belly-crawling, then crawling on their hands and knees until they can stand on their own and take their first steps at around 12 months.
All play can be an opportunity for children’s development and activity, especially when we allow them to experiment with and try doing things on their own. Imagine you had to learn how to drive with your driving instructor controlling the car pedals and turning the steering wheel for you. Every little adjustment, every fall, every achievement is key in reaching all the milestones of children’s motor development.
By experimenting with movement on their own, children gain mastery of their motor skills, they learn to refine new movements, to cope with the challenges these pose and to fully master them in an increasingly complex and diversified process that matures with the child’s cognitive level.
Falling, not managing and losing are experiences that allow children to find the strength to try again, to practice and to succeed. Their cognitive system is able to process these experiences and find adaptation strategies to adjust their body movements in space, finding new solutions for succeeding. And we shouldn’t forget the importance of emotions, and how thrilled they are when they manage their first jump, even if they then come crashing to the ground.
What sorts of games can we play with children to encourage movement?
An excellent exercise to train children’s sensory and perceptual system, especially during their very first months of life, is to play with all kinds of objects in different materials, textures, colours and shapes.
From 2-3 years it’s time to start to play with the imagination and fantasy, where a simple hoop can turn into a spaceship, and a sheet of blue fabric can transform into a deep, wavy sea.
The results of many research studies in different fields have recognised the beneficial effects of regular physical activity on cognitive learning processes in children and adults alike. Such benefits are reflected in improved mood, reduced anxiety levels and better sleep-wake cycle, as well as benefiting emotional states and relationships.
Our role as grownups is to play with them and be ready to catch them if they fall, and as we let them experiment on their own… Let’s have fun with them!
Alesi M, Galassi C, Pepi A, PMA Programma Motorio Adattato – Educare allo sviluppo motorio e allo sviluppo delle funzioni esecutive in età prescolare, Edizioni Junior, 2016
Cartacci F, Movimento e Gioco al nido, Erickson 2013
Mandolesi L, Manuale di psicologia generale dello sport Il mulino, 2017
Camaioni L., Di Blasio P. Psicologia dello sviluppo Il mulino, 2002