Strength and coordination are two areas of physical development that seem almost to "take care of themselves" - which may be why they are often overlooked when curriculum planning is underway in many early childhood settings. After all, children are going to get stronger as they grow older (true); they will also become more coordinated as they grow older (also true). Unfortunately, if left to chance, children may not reach their full potential in both of these critical areas of physical development. Short of weight lifting and coordination drills, what can we do to develop children's abilities? Plenty!
Defining Strength and Coordination
First, let's determine what we mean by strength. For preschool and kindergarten children, we are not talking about strength/conditioning programs (such as those in high schools) that focus on developing targeted muscle groups. Rather, young children need overall strength so that they can participate in a wide variety of activities, derive pleasure from those activities, gain confidence in their abilities to "do things" and, in fact, have the strength to "do things" - particularly new things.
Coordination is another ability that begins developing "on its own" as infants explore their bodies and their world. Eye-hand coordination begins to develop as babies first start to put fingers together, reach for toes, and reach for objects. Overall coordination grows as babies learn to roll over, sit, crawl, stand, and walk. So by coordination, we mean a, series of movements organized and timed to occur in a particular way to bring about a particular result.
When we start thinking about and planning for strength and coordination in young children, we have to realize that like all developmental issues, there are going to be individual differences, and, in general, development is going to happen at its own rate. You cannot "make" development happen; you can only support it by creating the right environment for each child as he reaches a particular point on the developmental continuum.
Infants: Within Their Reach
Babies need interesting things to look at: high-contrast items of black, white, and red, which they will reach for when they are ready. You can make geometric and freeform high-contrast designs on one-fourth sheets of posterboard. Move these designs about the areas where babies are lying and change their juxtaposition to stimulate head turning and visual development.
Toddlers: A Show of Strength
Toddlers seem to be drawn to experimenting with making their bodies do things and will really "show off" a new behavior when adults express excitement and pleasure with it. (At 17 months, my daughter, Grace, taught herself to walk across the room backward basically because when she tried to do it, we made a big deal over how cute she was.) If you watch toddlers as they experiment with their bodies, you'll discover all kinds of developing skills that can be encouraged with praise and positive reactions.
To foster skills, install several low bars on your toddler playground that children can use to pull themselves up and swing from. (If you don't have such bars, you and a fellow staff member can firmly hold a stout dowel or broom handle for the children.)
Preschoolers: Follow the Leader
Make sure there are other sorts of climbers besides steps and slides on your preschool playground. You may need to add tires placed in various patterns on the ground for Follow-the-Leader fun. Hang climbing ropes from tree limbs or swing-set frames to encourage upper body development through climbing. (Make sure you monitor this activity closely and take the ropes down when playtime is over. ) You can also tape a sand pail to each end of a 36-inch wood dowel and have children carry different amounts of sand or water or rocks from onw place to another.
Kindergartners: Increase the Challenge
Ladders and slides aren't challenging for children in this age group. To add to strength- and coordination-development opportunities, tie a one-inch natural fiber rope horizontally between two trees and about 54 inches above the ground. Let children "monkey swing" on it, or have them try to travel hand over hand as far as they can along the rope. (Again, monitor this activity closely and take the rope down when play has ended.) The next time you purchase riding toys, look for ones that are hand powered, not foot powered.
Whatever you do, don't let your children be limited by limited equipment. Be creative as you look for ways for children to lift things or themselves - or even others.