The magic of movement still really matters in our digital world

Early homo sapiens had to move to survive and we are still biologically wired to follow the same drive, so technically we still need to be physically active to thrive.

The statistics are strong that we are all not moving enough – with exception for all of you who are committed to a healthy routine including our walkers, runners, swimmers and lycra-clad cyclists!

I have written extensively about why babies and toddlers need to move more in my books 9 Things and Real Kids in an Unreal World.

Apart from the obvious concerns about obesity and being overweight, especially in childhood, when our children don’t develop the fundamental movement skills in the first five years of life, this has major impacts on their bodies and brains, and also socially and emotionally!

Without plenty of natural movement, babies and toddlers run the risk of experiencing developmental delays in all areas of their life.

Movement is not just about the physical body; it is a very sophisticated necessity for developing healthy brains, healthy minds and nurturing the socio-cultural development of every human being.

Many people will have heard of the research into the development of children who lived in orphanages in Romania where they received minimum human contact and no space to move or play — these children continued to show deficits in cognitive processing and emotional aspects many, many years later.

Some of the things that can occur if our children lack movement in the first two years of life are:

  • delayed motor development
  • poor co-ordination/ balance
  • tendency to be easily distracted, lack concentration
  • language problems
  • emotional immaturity
  • motion sickness
  • reading problems
  • aggressive behaviour.

It affects everything from their capacity to sit up for along periods of time, to holding a pencil, to learning social skills to regulating their emotions.

Recently, I was invited to comment on a new program, Building Active Bodies and Brains, launched by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries (DLGSC) and Playgroup WA. Their free resources – designed to help us teach our kids those fundamental movement skills – are now available for all parents and ECECs so please check them out!

We really are singing from the same song sheet! It seems there are some seriously important reasons why your young child (under 5) needs to be able to jump, skip, catch, hop, balance, throw or kick!

Why do fundamental movement skills matter?

Recent research shows us that there has been a big decline in young children’s basic physical skills.

I’ve had allied health professionals tell me about children who fall off their chairs in class and who need to touch desks as they walk around the room because their proprioceptive awareness is so underdeveloped… Yikes! So your seemingly endless clumsy toddler is actually working out where her bodies finishes.

Proprioception is the thing that tells us where our body parts are without having to look at them. So with poorly developed proprioception many kids can waste energy pushing too hard being playful, fall out of their seat at dinner time or trip up stairs – lots!

Vestibular sense helps us with balance – can you stand on one leg? A good friend who works as a primary literacy specialist and an educational kinesiologist told me she has noticed that often less than a quarter of K-6 children today can stand on one leg! In the past almost all could do this simple task.

Poor vestibular development often sees kids with no other option but to fidget, get frustrated when they are unable to sit too long, and struggle to self-regulate when they are tired or fail.

For young kids (under 6) in order to master the incredibly important abilities of being able to listen, focus, manage their energy and learn to sit still for a period of time, they must develop both proprioception and vestibular sense.

Is it any wonder that with all the time spent in front of screens and telling kids to sit still, stop running inside, stop jumping on the couch, avoid climbing, and stop doing cart wheels and handstands that kids struggle to listen and manage classroom environments?

Here’s a video Building Active Bodies and Brains have produced with OT Helen Cooper, Associate Professor Hayley Christian from Telethon Kids Institute and University of Western Australia and Griffin Longley, CEO of Nature Play WA outlining why fundamental movement skills are so … well… fundamental.


Movement for mental, emotional and brain health

The project was developed in conjunction with an Occupational Therapist, early years experts and the University of Western Australia. The experts list among the benefits of fundamental movement skills in the early years:

  • Improves self-regulation
  • Supports mental health
  • Enhances problem-solving
  • Better brain development
  • Improves social skills
  • Builds self-confidence
  • Builds focus & concentration

The need for children to keep physically active cannot be highlighted enough. Human beings were born to be movers and living a sedentary life is really a disruption to our nature.

Passivity can increase the emotional dramas and meltdowns in your home too.

Research shows that exercise and physical activity increase the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which are crucial neurotransmitters that traffic thoughts and emotions right throughout the whole body.

Essentially exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health — indeed it is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems. Not only that, physical exercise makes the blood pump through the body and stimulates the brain to work much more efficiently and soundly.

Modern society is becoming almost phobic about allowing young children the freedom to move vigorously and energetically especially in their natural world — outside.

As I have written previously on the subject of ‘containerising’ our children… “It is an interesting irony that the modern world is hell-bent on creating gadgets and equipment to improve our lives, yet which end up making it hard for our children to do what they are biologically wired to do — to move in deeply-encoded ways to ensure they gradually grow in all their competencies.”

The ability for children to self-regulate their energy and emotions is created through an integrated body and brain.

Movement skills have been shown to contribute to improving concentration spans and the ability of children to shift their attention at will.

Poor self-regulation is contributing to too much of the restless, inappropriate behaviour we see in early years and primary school classes – especially our little boys.

Remember we must never forget that child development cannot be hurried, no matter how inconvenient that may be for the adults in our ‘hurry-up’ world.

Each child has a built-in timetable that dictates just when s/he will crawl, sit up and start to walk; and given a safe environment, their development will flow naturally.

Children learn by doing and they will be noisy, untidy, messy and unpredictable. This is normal and at times parenting can be tiring, exhausting and frustrating. This too is normal.

Screens, however, are immobilising our children – and we need to be mindful of keeping the need for movement in the front of our minds so that they can grow to be the best expression of themselves not a weaker, less able version!

Dr John J Ratey and Eric Hagerman in their book called, Spark: how exercise will improve the performance of your brain (2008) explore many studies that show quite clearly that an increase in exercise, especially in the school environment, rapidly improves student performance. It appears that when we have over 20 minutes of increased heart rate activity there is significant activity in the impulse centre of the prefrontal cortex.

Students who were formerly poor performers began to work with more concentration and effort following the introduction of a program of vigorous exercise before class.

Sadly we seem to be moving physical activity from our curriculums to fit in more learning. Another interesting irony! This is why walking or riding or scootering to school is not only good for our children’s bodies, it’s great for their brains as well.

“Serotonin is equally affected by exercise and it’s important for mood, impulse control and self-esteem. It also helps stave off stress by counteracting cortisol and it primes the cellular connections in the cortex and hippocampus that are important for learning.” — John Ratey and Eric Hagerman, Spark (2008).

Getting our over-5s moving

While getting our under-5s moving is critical, it’s not just them who need to move.

Our school students are also moving less – few children walk or ride to school and then we’ve shortened recesses and lunch breaks, and safety concerns often mean there’s less opportunity for free-range play before and after school.

I am so heartened by the nature play revolution that’ s happening across Australia (especially in WA and Qld) where many schools are providing nature playscapes that allow kids to climb, jump, lift, create and more.

But there’s even more that can be done. Many schools are doing amazing things. For example, last week, I visited Honeywood Primary School to chat with Maria Cook about her school’s no homework policy (perhaps you heard my chat with Maria on our homework episode of the Parental As Anything podcast?)

Anyway, I was blown away with the huge amount of physical activity happening at this school. As you can see in the pictures, they had bikes, scooters, ball games and trampolines! If you check the FB post you will see it triggered a massive response – over 250,000 views and over 1000 comments!

This is totally possible in our school grounds!

At Honeywood, the students eat lunch after 25 minutes of full-on activity and apparently they go home with empty lunch boxes every day.

During my visit, I loved the noise of kids having fun while playing vigorously! Not only that, there is no truancy or school refusal at all! I seldom see such activity in school grounds.

Keep up the fabulous work Maria and your school community. By reducing homework after school you are creating the time and space for students to do what they do best – play! As Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, said: “Happy calm kids learn best!”

Getting our teens moving

With puberty emerging, the need to move does not decline! For all the same reasons movement helps muscles, tendons and bones grow strong and healthy. With the brain changes and the intensity of emotions and an inability to manage moods, our teens can use movement to help them be less crabby and confused!

Sadly our teens are leaving the main source of organised activity – sport – for a number of reasons including the competitive culture, cost and many teens feel it stops being fun!

If you have teens and they love to do physical movement of any form – organised sport, skating, surfing, dancing, rock climbing, cycling, ultimate Frisbee, beach cricket and running then please do everything you can to keep them engaged!

I would have loved to have slept in on the weekends when the Dent lads were teen boys but instead I jumped out of bed early to take them and often some mates surfing! The benefits far outweighed my mild discomfort and it was a fabulous time for me to spend quiet time in nature.

The screen world is a HUGE attraction and it can be a HUGE pull away from the real world where opportunities exist to make bodies move! Several game consoles now offer some form of virtual reality/sport activity. These offer digital exercise that can see everyone get very active in our lounge rooms from grandparents to little ones!

If you have become an inactive family and want to get things moving – other than organised sport – here are some suggestions

  1. get a dog and walk it morning and night
  2. get scooters for everyone
  3. get a table tennis table
  4. get a basketball backboard and shoot hoops
  5. get some Frisbees
  6. go bike riding as a family
  7. get a trampoline
  8. visit nature play spaces
  9. walk or ride to school – even just start twice a week.
  10. try skipping, elastics, hacky sack or hop scotch
  11. Put some music on and engage in spontaneous dancing in the lounge room every now and then.
  12. Encourage vigorous cleaning or gardening.

We need to remember that movement is a biological, essential thing to help our children grow healthy and help them be happier!

Huffing and puffing can help our kids to have stronger immune systems, better hearts and lungs and lower their chances of problematic anxiety and depression.

The screen world is not going anywhere – however we need to prioritise the need to move in our families and we need to do it now! Heck it can be serious fun. I still love beating my grown-up sons at “round the world” – a basketball shooting game we play with my hoop at home!

No matter what age we are – we need to move – every day if possible.


Maggie writes more about movement, play and what children really need in the early years in her book, 9 Things: A back-to-basics guide to calm, common-sense, connected parenting (Birth-8), as well as in her book on building resilience and self-esteem in kids under 12, Real Kids in an Unreal World.