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Move it: Physical activity for young children

Here’s a river,” says Ms. Jeffries, pointing to the space between the two ropes she has laid on the ground. “Can you jump over the river without falling in and getting wet?”
One by one, the children jump over it. “I did it,” boasts Angie. “Me, too,” says Antonio.
Then it’s Henry’s turn. He puts his toes against the first rope and, looking around to make sure everyone is watching, does a little hop.
“You fell in!” “You’re all wet!” the children scream.
Henry throws himself on the ground, flapping his arms and legs. “Look at me. I’m swimming!”

•   •   •   •   •

Adult physical activity can take many forms: regimented exercise, organized sports, and informal aerobic routines. For children, however, physical activities correspond to the children’s ages, skills, cultures, and sense of discovery.
Preschool children are still developing complex, integrated movement patterns. The goal of physical activity is learning what the body does, how and where the body moves, and the relationship of the body to the environment. To develop skills, children need time to practice, access to equipment, and the attention of a supportive movement teacher.
Successful movement activities reflect two facts:
Learning is interactive. Children learn by exploring and involving themselves with people and objects in the environment.
Learning is not compartmentalized. Children learn physical skills in conjunction with social, emotional, thinking, and language skills. Learning occurs in an integrated, mutually supportive way.
Movement experiences build skills. Think about children galloping across a playground or dancing with scarves in a hall. They’re expressing emotions and interacting with others socially. They’re observing and responding to the environment. They’re making decisions about how to move and working out a path from one place to another.
In the activities that follow, note how physical skills are integrated with other skills:
cognitive: learning math and vocabulary, for example;
social: partnering and developing teamwork;
emotional: building perseverance and confidence.
Typical preschool schedules can be adapted to include time for physical activity. Teachers often invite children to take part in movement activities on the playground and during circle time.
But the National Association for Sport and Physical Education urges more. (See guidelines on page 16.) Can you add physical activity to transitions, the discovery center, and even the book corner? By doing so, you can help children learn balance, stability, coordination, body awareness, and rhythm.
In addition to skill development, movement activities can help counter the current epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States. The percentage of children considered overweight has nearly doubled since 1980. The result has been an increased risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease as well as emotional impairment (CDC 2004).

Make space for movement
Physical activities require space. Whether indoors or outside, make sure the activity area is free of obstacles and debris. When appropriate, tape off a safety zone so that no one is accidentally hit or bumped.
Store equipment close to the activity area. Nothing impedes an activity more than having to search for equipment and carry it from distant storage. Consider hanging hooks and attaching shelves to keep movement equipment close at hand—even if you have to share space with meal service and music activities.
Build your movement program slowly. Ask parents and area businesses to contribute used equipment and materials specific to the activities you have planned. Invite their support (and time) in building props and modifying materials to the needs of young children. (See sources for donated materials.)

Focus on appropriate skills
As in all learning, new skills develop from earlier experiences and efforts. For example, walking is a skill that precedes running and galloping. Similarly, a child usually learns to catch and throw a ball before learning how to bounce, volley, or hit one.
According to one expert (Sanders 2002), children’s skill building begins with an awareness of four basic movement concepts:
action awareness—what the body does;
effort awareness—how the body moves;
space awareness—where the body moves; and
body awareness—how the body relates to itself, other people, and objects.
As they grow, children need guided opportunities to explore this awareness. They need to discover how force, speed, rhythm, body shape, location, and direction affect their movements.
For preschool children, physical activity experts typically focus on three points of action awareness:
locomotion—how a child’s body moves from one place to another. Examples are crawling, walking, hopping, skipping, leaping, running, rolling, and slithering.
stability or balance—how a child’s body stays in one place but moves around its horizontal or vertical axis. Examples are turning, bending, transferring weight, swaying, rolling, and jumping and landing.
manipulation of objects—the physics of force, speed, and direction. These movements include throwing, catching, batting, kicking, and dribbling.

Basic physical activities
As you teach basic movement skills, plan carefully. Keep a progress record for each child just as you would with language and other motor skills. Monitor progress and renew activities regularly so children are gently challenged to new levels of success.

Music and song often accompany locomotion, or traveling, activities. Vary the tempo and the direction to keep the activity challenging and fun but not frustrating. For example, you can instruct children to swing their arms, hold their arms at their sides, and place their arms on top of their heads or behind their backs. Move forward, backward, and to the side. Travel alone or with a partner, coordinating steps. Call directions clearly and give children lots of time to practice.
Crawl: Crawl on hands and knees with one hand and its opposite knee moving simultaneously. Crawl with the same-side hand and knee moving together. Move to a beat.
Walk: Walk heel to toe, on tiptoes, and toe to heel. Walk with toes pointed in or out. Walk to front or back or left or right.
March: Move with knees high to varying tempos.
Gallop: Take a step forward with one foot, drag the other leg to follow, keeping the same foot in front of the body throughout the activity. Move slowly, then faster.
Skip: Take a step and hop on one foot, then the other, moving forward. Skip backward and with a partner.

We achieve balance when our weight is distributed equally on each side of the body’s vertical axis. Balance can be either static (still) or dynamic (moving). A ballet dancer can maintain balance leaning to the side while standing on pointe on one leg and holding the other leg high in the air. Young children, on the other hand, develop balance so they can walk without falling over or ride a bicycle without tumbling down.
Children learn about stability by practicing balance in different postures—while still and while moving. Help children achieve balance when they do the
stand on a line with arms out to the side,
stand on one foot,
bend to the side with arms overhead, and
stand with their eyes closed.
Use a balance beam regularly. Respond to skill levels by varying the width of the beam and its distance from the floor. Instruct children to move on the beam by walking, hopping, skipping, and tiptoeing. Use music with varied tempos and call direction changes to increase the challenge of stability and stamina.

Fish on the beam
This simple activity challenges children to move their upper bodies while maintaining balance on a beam. Do the activity with three children at a time. As each child moves, the beam will wiggle and bounce, adding to the challenge.
Here’s what you need:
balance beam
2-foot lengths of wooden dowel
donut magnets
construction paper
paper clips

1. Cut out several fish from construction paper. Decorate with markers. Attach a paper clip to the mouth end of each fish.
2. Make fishing poles by attaching one end of the string to the wooden dowel. Tie a magnet to the other end of the string.
3. Set the balance beam about 6 inches from the floor. Spread the fish on the floor.
4. Invite children to stand on the beam and use a fishing pole to catch the fish.

Jumping requires balance, lower-body strength, and awareness of the body in space.
Demonstrate and practice jumping form: Stand steady on both feet with weight equally distributed and feet about shoulder width apart. Bend knees, swing arms behind, and jump, landing on both feet in the same balanced stance as the start. Practice jumping and landing in the same place, jumping forward, jumping high, and from two legs to landing on one.

Balance jump
Have three children squat on a balance beam. Sing “Three Green and Speckled Frogs.” Encourage children to bounce on the beam and act out the motions during the song. At the appropriate time, one frog jumps from the beam—high and far.

Three green and speckled frogs
Sat on a speckled log
Eating some most delicious bugs
Yum! Yum!

One jumped into the pool
Where it was nice and cool.
Then there were two green speckled frogs.
Glub! Glub!

Two green and speckled frogs
Sat on the speckled log
Eating some most delicious bugs
Yum! Yum!

One jumped into the pool
Where it was nice and cool.
Then there was one green speckled frog.
Glub! Glub!

One green and speckled frog
Sat on the speckled log
Eating some most delicious bugs
Yum! Yum!

He jumped into the pool
Where it was nice and cool.
Then there were no green speckled frogs.

Water jumping
Here’s what you need:
two 7-foot lengths of rope
small carpet squares

1. Place the two lengths of rope in parallel lines about 6 inches apart.
2. Challenge children to jump across the “water” without getting their feet wet.
3. As skills develop, widen the space between the ropes so children have to jump farther.
4. Continue to challenge the children by placing carpet squares between the ropes. Tell the children that these are stones in the river that they can use to get across.