ON A RECENT WALK IN MUIR WOODS, I WAS STRUCK by the varied forms of growth. The redwoods - tall and straight - dominated the landscape, reaching toward the sun. The other species - laurel, maple, elm - all struggled to find that bit of space that would allow them access to the life-giving sun. So it is with children. It is so important that we make sure our environment allows each one to find her "space" in the sunshine. We can do that by 1) creating the right outdoor environment, 2) allowing children time to use it, 3) encouraging movement awareness, 4) teaching physical-movement skills, 5) supporting children as they begin to develop and use those skills in increasingly complex and controlled ways, and 6) helping children develop a positive attitude about wellness and physical health.
My goal in this column is to help you get children to "think physically." To do this, first determine the physical-movement skills and abilities you want children to have when they leave your program. Next, break down those skills into discrete motions and invite children to engage in those motions in ways that are fun and creative. Then, when children have learned the separate motions, help them understand how to put them together and practice the entire skill. Children will begin to appreciate and understand their bodies more and feel good about who they are and what they can do!
Babies need to develop the separate skills of reaching, holding, and sitting up before they can combine them all into sitting and playing with a toy. To help babies learn, present a toy in front of them. Once reaching out in front is mastered, present the toy in varying positions and at different distances, but all within reach. Babies then begin to internalize the motions for distance, direction, and position. Later, when greater eye-hand coordination has been established, help babies develop speed by moving the toy slightly away one or two times as they reach.
As part of developing movement awareness and, later on, motor planning, help toddlers begin to see how they hold different things in different ways: "Look at how Sarah is carrying the long stick. See where her hands are. Can you carry a stick like that? Let's pretend the stick is very heavy." Comments help children focus on actions and ways to repeat specific ones.
Preschoolers Move More!
Many preschoolers are beginning to use climbing devices, such as overhead horizontal ladders. They may need help progressing from two-handed hanging to moving forward as they alternate their hands from bar to bar. Once they can swing their bodies forward and backward and twist their bodies, they'll be ready to hang, switching from one hand to the other for brief periods of time. From this point, they can begin to combine the forward swing and twist with the one-hand hang to move to the next rung.
Visit a nearby construction site or show a video of construction machinery at work. Encourage children to compare their body parts to parts of the machines. How are their feet like the tires? Do machines bend? Do we? Activities like these get children to think about, plan for, and use physical movements.
Physically Challenged Children
Helping physically challenged children think physically means identifying what they can do and accentuating those movements and skills. Try to include everyone. For example, all children can play catch with balloons to help them learn to anticipate catching a ball. Children in wheelchairs or who use walkers can use balloons instead of balls to practice throwing and catching skills. Activities like this minimize the differences between children while emphasizing the similarities.