Ready, Steady…. Move!
By Ines Lawlor
From the minute babies are born, they are learning to move. As newborns, their movements are dominated by reflexes which are essential for survival – such as turning the head for feeding when the baby’s cheek is stroked (known as the rooting reflex). However, as early as 2 months old, the baby begins purposeful movement, usually with that wonderful first smile. Soon the baby starts fixing their gaze on something of interest (usually their parents face) and turning their eyes and head voluntarily to follow a sound. Shortly after the arms and legs kick wildly in an attempt to grasp an object of interest and before you know it, the baby is sitting, rolling, crawling, creeping and then walking, sometimes within only 12 months.
Although development of motor skills follow a developmental sequence within infants, it does not happen automatically. The baby is born with lots more neuron connections than they need. When they begin to move, the brain sends out too many movement signals resulting in what seem like non-functional flailing of the arms and legs (what I call happy legs!). But if the baby gets one of those movements right, for example, they manage to hit a musical toy or tap their mummy and she turns around, the brain receives feedback that they got that movement right! Over time and with plenty of repetition, the nerve pathways for the right movements are strengthened and the unnecessary neurons die away. This allows the child to gain more and more accuracy in the movements they want to do. The key to this process in typically developing children is practice, practice, practice. However, in children with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), despite regular practice, it is thought that this natural pruning does not happen to the same extent, making voluntary controlled movements more difficult. This can lead to a vicious cycle where the child’s poor motor skills, makes them less motivated to practise motor based activities, hence leading to less development of motor skills and the gap between them and their peers getting wider.
For numerous reasons (lure of screen time, parents working, health and safety concerns) children are spending less and less time in play. It is recommended that young children (2-10 year olds) spend at least 2-3 hours in active free play every day. However, with modern lifestyles, many children don’t get 2-3 hours a week! This begins as babies (when they may be carried in car seat, buggies or play gyms) and later as young children (when they are engaged in structured activities or in technological past-times). Hence, through lack of opportunities for movement through play, children’s basic motor skills such as hopping, throwing and catching, skipping are underdeveloped in the general population. A study which compared the strength and coordination of typically developing children in 3 classrooms found that none of the children could pass a basic motor assessment compared to children growing up in the 1980’s (Hanscom, 2016). Hanscom describes the reason for this as a lack of unstructured free play.
You may wonder if it matters if children are not as strong or coordinated as they used to be? Well in a word . . . yes! Not just because of the difficulty with the motor skills themselves, but also for the implications this has for other areas of children’s health. Poor stability and strength of the body makes it more difficult to sit still which has implications for classroom performance. Stability of the trunk shoulder and arm is also essential for accurate pencil control along with good hand eye coordination which is developed through playing ball games. Reading requires coordinated movements of the eyes. Lack of activity is also a contributing factor in obesity.
There are therefore two groups of children with motor delay: those whose coordination is behind their age expectation due to a lack of opportunities for active free play and those who have a diagnosis such as DCD.
Whether a child has a diagnosis of DCD or simply delayed motor skills, unstructured free play (such as time spent in playgrounds, rolling down hills, climbing trees, ball games etc) will encourage children to challenge themselves physically, increase their physical activity and gain confidence in their motor skills. However, once a child’s motor skills have fallen significantly behind those of their peers, they may also require targeted intervention to best improve their motor skills. Individualised activity programmes allow activities to be graded so the child succeeds from the beginning and does not loose confidence or interest in continuing to practise. Providing careful feedback on a child’s motor development has also been shown to be an essential part of developing motor skills which may be from a therapist/teacher or from the child themselves!
Dexter and Me – a story about motor coordination offers a child friendly explanation of how motor skills are coordinated in the brain with simple strategies for developing motor coordination and organisational skills. The story offers both graded practise based solutions and practical problem solving solutions which the child learn to contribute to themselves.
Hanscom. A (2016) Balanced and Barefoot How unrestricted outdoor Play makes for Confident and Capable Children. New Harbinger Publications,Inc