If your toddler is anything like mine, then you understand that the word active can sometimes be a huge understatement.
Along those same lines, I often daydream of whether he’ll channel all of that energy into being an athlete later down the road.
And if he is actually interested in sports, when is the right time to encourage and begin cultivating athletics in my tot?
Well, the good news is that physical activity comes naturally to young children so the “moving” part of the equation isn’t something that you’ll need to teach, per say.
As infants, our littles depend on movements to satisfy their basic needs. They flail those arms and legs about, grab for and hold onto whatever comes within their reach and push against (or, let’s be real, completely knock over) things that may stand in their way.
All of these actions help children relate to the world around them, and it helps them develop all of those controlled, purposeful skills that they will need later on in sports and in life.
As our children grow, they continue using physical activity to learn about their world, our world, the whole world and themselves!
During physical play, they find out how things work.
They discover their own abilities and limitations.
They use their new body skills to “talk” to their world.
Banging a cup may mean, “More please, momma!”
Pushing something away may mean, “Nope!”
Jumping around and dancing may mean, “Look at me, momma! I’m so happy!”
Our Children’s Motor Skills Develop in a Sequence
Almost every single task our child does before the age of 6 requires mastering a new motor skill.
Drinking from a cup, throwing a ball, going down stairs – they’re all challenges.
Some skills are easier to learn than others, and the order in which skills are learned is called a developmental sequence.
For instance, children first learn to walk, then to run, jump and hop–in that order.
There is a developmental sequence in learning a single skill, too. As children practice a particular skill, such as hopping, they use their bodies more effectively each time and reach a higher level of development in that skill.
They’ll progress through these motor development sequences at their own rate.
Children of the same age may be at different developmental levels because of differences in motor ability and in the amount of time they have practiced the skill…and that skill development takes practice.
Skill Development Takes Practice
Because children under 6 are just starting to develop their motor skills, they need lots. Of. Practice.
They should be encouraged to do things like throw, catch run, skip, leap, jump and roll. And they also need to learn how to stop without falling to the floor or the ground!
Thankfully, most young children think of these activities as fun and enjoy practicing these skills!
The way that kiddos practice their motor skills is also very sequential.
They may work at one task, switch to another and then return to the first task. By returning to a task, they get in a lot more practice than you may think!
And only through a great amount of practice, will they begin to master the tasks.
Before you know it, they’ll be showing off and shouting, “Hey Momma! Look at me!”
Things You Can Do to Help Your Child Develop Motor Skills
- Find a PLACE for activity.
- Provide a safe area and plenty of time each day for your child to run, hop, crawl, hang, throw, catch, jump and engage in other large muscle activities.
- Also set aside an area where they can practice small movements, such as cutting out things, drawing or hammering.
- In the home, arrange part of the child’s room, a spare room or attic or basement as a place for these activities, and clear out all breakable or dangerous items. These places have to be supervised.
- Outdoors, you can be physically active in the backyard, on the sidewalk, or in the park.
- A garage door without windows can be used as a backboard for throwing a ball, and a driveway can be used for dribbling, kicking or bouncing a ball.
- A tree with a sturdy rope and a tire attached will encourage a child to climb, hang and swing.
- If your child goes to daycare or preschool, make sure that the children have plenty of time and space for both small and large muscle activities.
- Check all your child’s play areas for safety. Young children lack motor control. They often run into things and break them. For your child’s safety (and your own peace of mind), find places where your child can practice motor skills without danger of accidents.
- Provide simple (but interesting) play things that encourage physical activity.
- Place a low, heavy table or footstool in the room where your infant or toddler plays. Children will try to stand and walk when they can pull themselves up on furniture that is close at hand.
- In the play area in your home, provide things to throw or kick. These toys don’t need to be fancy: balloons, rolled up socks, or pieces of newspaper crunched into a ball are accessible and easy options.
- Make sure that they don’t break things (including bones)- look for safe places they can enjoy “jumping down”: benches, tree stumps, or a bottom step are examples.
- Look for equipment that encourages your child to be active. They can climb up household step stools or a jungle gym ladder in the park!
- While swings, merry go-rounds and seesaws don’t provide much vigorous activity, they can still help to develop balance skills.
- Also, let your child ride on your shoulders while you walk, or get down on your hands and knees and invite your child to play “horsey” on your back. These activities are fun for children and help develop balance too.
- If you send your child to a community recreation program, make sure that balls of different sizes, weights and textures are available, as well as beanbags, paddles, hoops and large equipment for climbing, swinging and hanging.
To encourage skill development, young girls and boys must have an opportunity to practice many skills by using different kinds of play equipment.
- Let you child select the activities to practice.
- As much as you can, let your child decide whether to throw a ball, ride a bike, climb a jungle gym or run and jump.
- Don’t be too quick to show them how you would do it.
- Try to find out what motivates your child to practice.
If over a period of time, you notice that your child passes up certain activities that are helpful in skill development, suggest that the child try them.
- Keep the tasks simple but challenging.
- Rather than handing a toy to your infant, place it on the floor just out of reach. Children learn to crawl more easily when they have to reach for something.
- Encourage your toddler to climb up on a chair or footstool, instead of waiting to be lifted. (Stand by, of course, to provide help and assure the child’s safety.)
- As your child becomes more successful, make each task a little more difficult. For example, if the child can kick a large ball easily, find a smaller ball to kick. If the child can throw a ball a short distance, suggest that the ball be thrown harder, farther or higher.
- For your children, just practicing a skill is a game. They may say, “Let’s play kicking.” They don’t need complicated games, and most of the time they’ll lack the skills to play them anyway.
- Help your child be successful.
- When something doesn’t work right away, your child won’t regard it as a failure unless you do.
- Only by trying over and over will motor skills develop.
- Because your child wants to please you, your attitude is extremely important.
When children are encouraged by adults, they enjoy learning a skill and success usually follows.
- What about competition?
- Because of the developmental characteristics of children under age 6, the value to placing them in competitive situations is debatable.
- In competition, someone always loses — Young children may think of losing as failure, and this can work against your efforts to help them gain enough confidence to try new and different things.
- If your children have a chance to experience a broad range of physical activities throughout their first five years, the transition to competitive situations should be smoother later one.
- A word of caution if you believe that a child needs to learn to cope with competition or you’re concerned that they’re not developing skills or becoming “competitive” fast enough:
- Keep in mind that when children are ready for competition, they can become involved in good competitive programs-on their own terms…and at a level that will foster further development-not hinder it.
Questions Often Asked About Children from Birth to Five Years
My child seems to be left handed. Should I do anything to change that?
Young children are still developing hand dominance. Encourage your child to use both hands when trying new skills as well as practicing old ones. Changing a child’s natural movement pattern may slow down the development of other physical skills.
My 4-year-old has eye-hand coordination problems. What can I do to help?
Eye-hand coordination is still developing in 4-year-old children. You can do somethings that will help the coordination develop normally but, unless the child is still having trouble in a few years, try not to regard it as a “problem.” Roll small balls to your child and gently throw large, lightweight balls. A ball suspended from a height (ceiling) will be easier to hit than one that is thrown.
My 5-year-old child is very overweight. What should I do?
If your child is already overweight, you should check with your doctor or the local health clinic for advice on a combination diet and exercise program.
Is childhood obesity something to really worry about? Won’t children outgrow it?
The problem of childhood obesity is an extremely serious one…The old belief that children outgrow their baby fat is widely believed, but just is not always the case…It is extremely important that parents provide ample opportunity for activity in infancy and childhood. Everyone should have a daily program of activity.
Alright sports moms, so there you have it. If you’re worried about developing your kiddo for recreation, and they’re under 6 years old–fret not. Take it in stride, use the tips above, and trust your instincts!
Source: Children and Youth in Action: Physical Activities and Sports, US Department of Health