By Craig Valency, MA, CSCS

kids on beach

With the rise in awareness of childhood obesity, we’ve been imploring kids to move more and eat less. But what if we’re missing the mark?

Today, many kids are over-scheduled, uninspired, and drowning in electronics – they simply don’t play and explore like they did years ago. As a result, many of our kids simply don’t know how to move!

To counter this, we’re encouraging children to run around, do calisthenics, and play sports. Simple and beneficial as these activities may be, they actually require critical foundational skills that many kids haven’t mastered yet. For these children, frustration, injury, and a negative self-image often become synonymous with exercise and sport.

Who can blame them for not wanting to look inept?

The missing link to true movement mastery is learning the perceptual-motor skills. This foundational aspect of movement is often overlooked, as we just assume that kids understand and properly utilize their sensory awareness abilities.

Because our children’s modern environments are often devoid of enriched sensory experiences, and they don’t free play as much as they used to, this foundational pre-requisite for all movement skill training is sorely missing. Even given the perfect environment, many of these skills must be taught explicitly in order to develop all of the body’s senses to their fullest.

What are Perceptual-Motor Skills?

Perceptual-motor learning begins early, as infants use information from all their senses to inform how they move. All learning relies on multi-sensory inputs based on what is seen, touched, heard, or felt.

Perceptual-motor learning is the integration of body, directional, spatial, temporal, visual, vestibular, auditory, tactile, and proprioceptive inputs, leading to motor interpretation and fine-tuning based on sensory feedback. As the accuracy of the sensory inputs improves, so too does the motor output.

Well that was a mouthful! Let’s break it down a little by looking at each of the 9 perceptual inputs.

  • Body: Understand the parts of the bodies and how they move
  • Directional: Differentiate between the left and right sides of the body and move in all planes of motion
  • Spatial: Has a sense of how much space one’s body takes up and moves comfortably around other people and objects
  • Temporal: Has a sense of timing and rhythm
  • Visual: Can visually focus and track objects
  • Vestibular: Develop an internal sense of their body’s position in relation to gravity
  • Auditory: Can accurately respond to sound
  • Tactile: Can respond to touch in competitive situations to counter a move, as in wrestling, or in cooperative situations to stay with a partner, as in dance
  • Proprioceptive: Interpret the internal sense of where the body is in space

Not Just an Intervention for Some Kids

While age-related milestones for the development of these sensory components of movement and coordination are real, recent research confirms that these abilities can be developed and honed earlier with an enriched environment, guidance, experience, and practice.

Perceptual-motor skills and intellectual skills are acquired in much the same way, which is why perceptual-motor training is being used as an intervention for learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Perhaps by stressing these awareness skills for all young children, we can prevent many of these problems before they start. This could improve learning, behavioral, and movement proficiency outcomes for our kids.

How do Kids Learn Movements?

The best approach to teaching movement is to recreate the way children naturally learn how to move from infancy through childhood. We can even the playing field by applying these developmental principles when working with diverse groups of children, as we reconstruct an ideal environment for learning from the ground up.

The natural process of learning new movements occurs through exploration, followed by selection of the appropriate task to find solutions to the imposed demands. This process can be seen with any infant simply by giving them novel tasks and observing how they adjust their current dynamics to achieve the goal.

For example, my eight-month old son decided to go from knee crawling to bear crawling the first time we took him to the beach. Evidently, he was not too fond of dragging his knees through the sand. This direct connection to the ground with his feet and the “safe” wide open space of the beach at low tide led him to stand for the first time.

The Perceptual-Motor Cycle

As you can see, perception and action are inseparably linked in the chain of events to learn new movements. Movement itself is a form of perception, as people perceive in order to move; but they also move so they can perceive. It is through new experiences that brain plasticity is spurred on. This, in turn, opens up opportunities for new experiences, leading to further brain plasticity– and the cycle goes on.

explore flow chartExploration leads to perception and action, where children select the appropriate movement solution and approximate the basic structure of the movement. Next, they fine tune the configurations to make them smoother and more efficient. Repeated cycles of action and perception lead to further exploration. The cycle continues, creating a wider and wider circle of movement possibilities and increased movement vocabulary.

In this blog series, I will go over each of the nine perceptual-motor skills and describe how they can be implemented in a program to ensure that children get that solid foundation that translates to improved movement skills and a love of movement that lasts a lifetime.

In the next post, I’ll discuss body awareness, which is surprisingly challenging for many young kids. I’ll go over what it is, why it’s important, and how you can integrate activities and games into any program to teach and refine body awareness.

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