Several studies show there has been a decline in the (gross) motor skills of children over the past years. The lockdowns during the current COVID pandemic seem to speed up this process. But why is (gross) motor development important for young children? And what can you do as a professional to support this development?
A recent study of the Mulier Institute shows that after the first lockdown in the Netherlands kindergartners (5- and 6-years-old) scored on average lower on two types of motor development compared to statistics from before the lockdown . Children scored lower on balancing and on bouncing with a ball (eye-body coordination). Education for young children is rather dynamic. They play and explore with their whole bodies and during the first lockdown they missed out on this. Not only did they miss opportunities for motor development in school, but many other organized sport activities (swimming lessons, soccer practice, etc.) were cancelled as well. Unfortunately, this lack of physical play during the week was not fully compensated at home. According to parents, 42% of the children spend less time on physical play during the first lock down .Even for children who were not used to spending a lot of time outside before the COVID pandemic, a decrease was visible. They did spend even less hours on physical play and had more screen time during the lockdown. For all children screen time has increased over the years and especially during the pandemic, however, for a large portion of the children this is at the expense of physical play.
Importance of physical play
Physical play and sports is essential for the healthy development of children. It decreases their chance of being overweight during childhood and later on in life. Moreover, physical play stimulates motor development as well as other developmental areas . It supports brain development by creating a better blood supply and it stimulates nerve cells production and connections, which is beneficial for many developmental areas. Also, children who spend more time on physical play score higher on executive functions, which contributes to their school performance. In addition, physical play contributes to children’s concentration, motivation and attention skills.
Research also shows that playing outside has direct benefits for children’s well-being. A Dutch study of Jantje Beton in 2018 showed that the majority of children between the age of 6 and 12 feel happy after they played outside. Moreover, almost half of the children indicated they feel healthy and strong after playing outside .
How much time do children spend on physical play?
The World Health Organization states that children between 1- and 4-years-old should spend at least three hours per day in a variety of types of physical activity. For children above the age of 5 the recommendation is at least one hour of physical activity per day. Research shows that only 60% of the Dutch children meet the advised norm of one hour per day . Playing outside, during or after school time, accounts for the largest portion of physical activity children get each day. This is followed by regular sports activities (e.g., weekly soccer practice) and walking or biking to school. The Dutch study of Jantje Beton shows that 6- to 12-years-old children of this generation play outside less often compared to their (grand)parents at the same age. Moreover, the decline is already visible within this generation. In 2018 it was estimated that 14% of the children play outside every day, compared to 20% in 2013. In addition, the percentage of children that never or rarely play outside has increased from 20% in 2013 to 30% in 2018 .
What can you do as a professional?
As a professional you can support the motor development of young children. Here are 5 tips to help children engage in physical activity.
- Go outside every day for at least half an hour, even on days the weather is less than ideal. There are many fun outdoor activities for children during bad weather and most children love jumping in small puddles of water.
- Set a good example and play along. Dance, jump and run together with the children during their play.
- Make physical activity part of your every day routine. Dance every day for 10 minutes before you eat fruit or lunch. Or let children help with cleaning up or setting the table.
- Create a diverse curriculum with many different opportunities for physical play. Include activities in which children can run, jump, climb and balance.
- Use a diversity of materials that support motor development such as balls, (balance) bikes, play parcour, bean bags, hula-hoops and jungle gym materials.