As children develop motor skills, they're also exploring their place in the world. They discover and understand their own space and then learn about the relationship between it and the spaces around them. Throughout this process, they're fine-tuning their knowledge of their bodies and how they can use them. You can help them grow strong as they learn to understand and control their bodies.

Exploring Their Own Space

When you gather the children for a group movement activity and ask them to stretch out their arms to make sure they have plenty of room, you're helping them discover their own space. As they mark off the area around them and then move their bodies within it, they realize just how big an area they occupy. Ask them to stretch to reach the top of it, curl to touch the bottom, and twist to discover the sides. Eventually, they'll understand the space their body occupies, whether they're standing in one place or they're in motion.

As they engage in movement exploration, children become more and more aware of the parts of their bodies. They not only learn to name them with more accuracy and specificity (the arm has an elbow, a wrist, and so on), but they also discover the range of motion various parts of their bodies can perform. A child's knowledge that his arm can move in certain ways but not in others is important to his understanding of its use as he tries new activities.

Exploring Other Spaces

As children maneuver through the playground's climber, move in and out of the tight spaces and around one another, they become aware of the relationship between their own body and other objects in space. They're continuing to understand their own body and the space it occupies while learning about where their space ends and others begin.

Certainly, some of the conflicts that arise on the playground and in the classroom occur as children struggle to figure out and master these spatial relationships.

Exploring Objects

Children's developing manipulative skills enable them to explore the fascinating items in the world around them. It's important that children gain experience in handling large and small objects such as balls and crayons. As you regularly offer children a variety of manipulatives, both indoors and out, you're helping them achieve new gross- and fine-motor skills.

From Wholes to Parts

Children develop physically at different rates. But there are two patterns of development all children adhere to as they acquire motor skills: body control and body management.

Body control begins in the head and neck and progresses along the spine into the torso. Think of an infant who first raises her head, then rocks on all fours, then crawls, learns to stand, and eventually takes her first steps.

In body management, children learn to control specific parts of their body. For example, manipulation skills involving the hands progress from the use of the whole arm to using the hand, then the palm, and finally to using the fingers.

Encouraging Movement

Stimulation and motivation have powerful effects on the rate at which children develop motor skills. These influences start early. Infants whose environments are enriched by colorful mobiles, toys, and mirrors learn to grasp sooner than children without such stimulation and tend to engage in more visual inspection of the world around them. Theories of play say that children are driven to maintain a flow of information and stimulation—which may explain why very young children so often go from one activity to another.

Keep in mind the role of stimulation and excitement for all ages as you plan movement activities. Without these two ingredients, you may find some children hanging back—or devising their own antics instead of joining in group play!

Put Fun in Motion

When you involve children in physical activities, you help lay the foundation for achieving motor skills and fitness. You can greatly influence children's motor development by participating in their play and expressing your own interest in physical activity and sports. Make sure you encourage movement activities the children will enjoy and learn from each day.

Engage children in activities that help develop spatial orientation. A good way to help children as young as age 3 visualize their own space is to give them a hula hoop to stand in. Holding the hoop at waist level and moving through open space helps them maintain their own space as they move among other children.

You can add another challenge by placing hoops or carpet squares on the floor and using them as mud puddles the children must negotiate by hopping, leaping, and jumping around and over. This further restricts the open space and helps children develop agility as they move rapidly to avoid the hoops and one another.

Help children learn to control the various parts of their body. Set them in motion with directions such as "Fly like a bird" or "Slink like a cat." You can help children develop balance and motor control by challenging them to move in the open spaces and then directing them to freeze like statues. How quickly can they stop moving? How long can they stand still?

Play games that help children name their body parts. Many of these activities also help develop spatial orientation. They range from simple activities such as naming body parts to more complex games such as "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes." Another idea is to give children hula hoops and then name a body part and have children put it in the hoop. Then ask children to touch their nose to their knee, their fingers to their toes, and their hands to their shoulders. After you've called out the instructions, let the children take turns.

Engage children in balancing acts. Give children beanbags and ask them to balance them on different parts of their bodies: "Can you put a beanbag on your knee? On your shoulder? On your head?" Ask children to move around while balancing the beanbags. Have them walk quickly, then sideways, then backward. If a child's beanbag falls, ask another child to pick it up while still balancing her own beanbag. Challenge children to balance a hula hoop from their shoulders, elbows, wrists, or index fingers.

Help children learn to throw. Children as young as 3 can become quite proficient in throwing if you give them six-inch yarn balls to toss back and forth. They simply have to be given something their tiny fingers can grasp. Also, if you introduce the concept of a target, you'll help children learn to throw. Children are often taught to throw with no specific intent. But if they realize that the intent is to hit a target and they're given one (hula hoop, barrel, or tape on a wall), they'll have something concrete to aim at.

They'll get immediate feedback on the mechanics of a successful throw. This positive reinforcement of successful action will invite them to continue to control their movements more precisely.

Good Moves

As children become more aware of their bodies and what they can do, they'll move more efficiently and use objects with increasing dexterity. When you make movement an important and fun part of your program, you'll not only promote children's motor development. You'll also set them on a course toward healthy exercise habits for life.

This article originally appeared in the April 1998 issue of Early Childhood Today.