In this digital age, many of the incidental circumstances for physical exploration and growth have dissolved. Although the impacts of this on ever-increasing obesity and preventable disease rates is clear, focus is not often directed to the impact that technology has on the physical development of children.
Let us consider a seven-year-old child that fidgets and has difficulty sitting upright in his chair, preferring to instead slump over the table or prop himself up with his hands. His attention regularly strays and he is unable to carry out a sequence of tasks successfully. The child avoids fine motor tasks and displays poor legibility, with many letter and number reversals. What could be wrong?
These are common occurrences for children in a school setting that could have a detrimental impact on their learning experience… and these may be attributed to insufficient physical development.
As soon as children begin to roll and hold their head independently, they are developing postural muscles. These core muscles help babies to reach functional milestones such as sitting independently and walking. However, these muscles must continue to strengthen and develop endurance to allow postures to be sustained for long periods, such us when sitting in a classroom. These muscles provide the solid base for all movement and are vital in not only physical activity, but also in learning.
If a child lacks sufficient strength and endurance in these postural muscles, they often move or change position constantly in order to utilise other muscle groups that are not yet fatigued. While this alone can impact attention and execution of cognitive tasks, the use of the upper limb for added support can also alter completion of fine motor tasks, greatly impacting overall learning.
Upper limb strength and control is vital in all fine motor skills and requires not only the hand but also the forearm and shoulder muscles. These muscle groups go through significant growth during the crawling period. Weight bearing on the hands, arms and shoulders dramatically increases the strength of the upper limb. The longer a child spends in this position, the greater the endurance of these muscles will be; development can then later be extended through such activities as throwing, catching and manipulation. Once at school, a lack of strength and control in the upper limb muscles can result in poor pencil grip and swapping from left to right, the writing arm positioned away from the body and reduced coordination of movement – all negatively impacting handwriting legibility, accuracy and speed.
Finally, it is important to consider integration and midline crossing. The midline is the imaginary vertical line which separates a person’s left and right halves. Through early development and exploration, babies and children start to integrate both sides of their brain and body. This is essential for coordination in many common activities such as walking, swimming, skipping and star jumps.
It is important to recognise the relevance integration and midline crossing have on learning:
- They are essential in literacy skills as children learn to read and write from left to right and form letters and numbers, often whilst crossing their own midline; and
- They are a precursor to determining a dominant side of the body (i.e. being left or right handed), which should be determined before starting school so fine motor skills can be developed.
If not given the opportunity to develop strength, control and endurance in these important muscle groups independently through play and physical activity, areas of asymmetry and poor habits develop; this can translate to difficulties not only on the sporting field but also in the classroom. Providing young children with an environment that encourages movement, play and sport can have benefits throughout life. The value of movement can never be underestimated.
Carla Shannon, BHSc MPhty is Director and Founder of Physio Play
Email: [email protected]