Physical Development: Which Way Is Up?

The importance of laterality and directionality in children's development

  • Grades: PreK–K

For Children With Special Needs

Help each child find a partner. First invite children to stand to the left of their partners. Then encourage partners to go around each other. Next, have partners toss a beanbag to each other with their right hands and then with their left hands. Encourage children to catch the beanbag with the same hand their partners threw it with. For example, if one partner throws left, the other partner must catch left. Have children catch with the opposite hand from the thrower.

"WHAT'S UP, DOC?" BUGS BUNNY ASKS REPEATEDLY. A MORE appropriate question for those of us in early childhood education is "Where's up, Doc?" - and, while we're at it, where's down, left, right, front, and back! In this month's column, we'll focus on two critical concepts that are the foundation for directional awareness if not the foundation for movement awareness itself: laterality and directionality. Motor development is greatly helped when children develop a keen sense of themselves in these two areas.

What Are Laterality and Directionality?

Laterality refers to the two sides of the body. Children must develop an internal awareness that their bodies are composed of two sides (the right and the left) in order to plan and execute specific movements in a given direction. In fact, the development of this internal awareness of laterality is thought to both precede and underlie the development of directionality, according to Carl Gabbard, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at Texas A&M University. In other words, children who have a difficult time developing laterality will be at risk for developing a well-integrated sense of directionality or directional awareness.

Directionality, then, is simply the application of the concept of laterality to the external world. "If I have a left and a right, then other things can have a left and a right and I can move to the left or the right of those things." Simply put, directionality is what helps children understand the space around them in the everyday world. It helps them identify where things are and understand where they themselves are in relationship to those things. "Look, Miss Kristi, I can stand on top of the slide!" "I see Laurel; she's hiding behind the chair."

Now, before we get overly concerned because Susie doesn't know her right from her left, let's remember that laterality is developed over time and through concrete experiences that reinforce the concepts of right and left. It is not uncommon for most children in the early childhood years to take some time to solidify these concepts. If children are 6 or older and still having difficulty with left and right, you'll probably also notice other motor integration difficulties: poor coordination, an inability to shift feet easily while doing rhythmic activities, and difficulty in understanding instructions which emphasize directions.

So, since these two concepts are so critical, what can you do to develop them? Probably what you're already doing! So much of what early childhood professionals do during the course of the day provides experiences which develop laterality and directional awareness.

Infants: Finger and Toe Fun

The finger-plays, toe-plays, and hand activities you're already doing (such as this "little piggy," "peek-a-boo!" and "pat-a-cake") all serve to develop laterality as you play alternately with the left and right sides of Baby's body. You can also stimulate head turning to the left and right by singing soft sounds alternately into the left and right ears and by showing high-contrast toys. With older sitting infants, begin to use the terms left and right as well as directional terms such as up and down, under and over. For example, let the child see you place a toy under another object, and then direct a child to look for it: "Look, Judi, the ball is under the cup, can you find it?"

Toddlers: Name Those Body Parts!

Toddlers are into naming body parts full tilt. So use laterality terms - left and right - when you join them in this game. For example, say: "Good for you; that's your right eye!" as the child points to his right eye. The more you do this, the more children will begin to associate "left and right" with the left and right sides of their bodies. Remember, we don't have to drill children. We simply take advantage of every teachable moment to introduce these words into their experiences.

Preschoolers: Directionality in Motion

Preschoolers have already had lots of experiences with left and right and directional awareness, and you can build on these through all curricular areas. Singing and dancing to "The Hokey Pokey" is a delightfully entertaining way to practice left and right. For children who are having a difficult time, tie a ribbon around their right wrists and right legs to aid in choosing the correct side to "put it in and shake it all about."

Give your preschoolers a sturdy plastic container or a sturdy cardboard box and take them outside on a grassy area. Have them stand behind the object, then hop to the left, hop back behind, hop to the right, hop back behind, hop over, and so on. At the end, have them get in or under the object. Remember, when you demonstrate a movement to preschoolers and name a direction, you will need to face away from them (with them to your back) so when you say "left" it will match with their left and they won't get confused. Whatever you do with children at this age, always use the directional and lateral terms to help solidify these concepts through repeated exposure to them in a variety of contexts.

Kindergartners: Old Pros

Kindergartners have generally developed a fairly consistent ability to recognize their own left and right and even the left and right of other objects. There can still be confusion, however, so continue using the terms for lateral and directional positions in your direction giving as you refer to where things are in the room and in other common classroom situations. Identify the left and right sides of your room (you may have to clarify the center line with a piece of tape on the floor) and have the children draw or write the names of five objects on the left and five on the right. You can even have them divide their papers into left and right halves and do the task on the appropriate side of the paper.

Have kindergartners use a ladder lying on the ground to step over the rungs, step on the rungs, walk down the left side, lead with the left foot and step between the rungs, and so on.

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    Health and Safety, Motor Skills, Physical Development
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