First steps to the most important ABC

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Britain is in danger of creating a generation of over-stimulated, under-active children. Sally Goddard Blythe reports on the importance of physical as well as mental development

AS THE Government targets literacy and numeracy levels and children enter school at rising five, we are in danger of forgetting that there is more to reading and maths than teaching alone. There is also reading readiness.

When a child enters the school system it is assumed that heshe will be able to sit still, pay attention, manipulate a pencil and control the eye movements which are necessary for reading. Many children do acquire these skills without difficulty; others take longer and enter school at a definite disadvantage in terms of their physical and neurological development.

These children run the risk of later specific learning difficulties, behavioural and social problems, not because they lack intelligence, but because the basic systems fundamental to academic learning are not fully in place when they begin school. Attention, balance and co-ordination are the primary ABC on which all later learning depends.

Writing is a motor task which involves complex co-ordination between the hand and the eyes with the support of postural system. Reading is primarily an oculo-motor skill. Attention and concentration develop with maturity, and motor skills provide a measure of maturity.

The most advanced level of movement is the ability to stay totally still which requires entire muscle groups to work together in co-operation with the balance and postural systems. Children who are unable to sit still or pay attention need more time engaged in physical activities if they are to gain full control over involuntary movements and develop a vocabulary of controlled voluntary actions.

In the former Czechoslovakia two simple tests were carried out to assess school readiness. Could the child draw a circle in both a clockwise and anticlockwise direction? Could the child touch the left ear with the right hand and the right foot with the left hand? These simple motor abilities are essential if a child is to be able to form its letters and to cross from the left to the right side of the page when writing.

A study carried out at the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester found that there were clear differences in the early development of a group of children who later developed reading, writing and copying difficulties when compared to a group of children who had no difficulties. Children who had reading, writing and copying problems had learned to walk later and many had not passed through the development stages of crawling like a commando on their tummies or creeping on hands and knees; they were later at learning to talk, learning to ride a bicycle, catch a ball and carry out fine motor tasks such as doing up buttons and tying shoelaces. They had difficulty sitting still and had a higher incidence of bedwetting after age five.

While many of these difficulties may be attributed to delayed neurological development, unless these fundamental skillsare developed, the child will experience difficulties with later aspects of learning and social interaction. The clumsy child finds it difficult to integrate its personality into the environment because a limited physical vocabulary translates into immature behaviour which may be inappropriate to the situation whether it be the classroom, the playground or the home.

Increased emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic alone will not accelerate this group of children's academic achievements. For some, a six-month delay before entering school with increased opportunity for developing gross and fine muscle skills may be sufficient. For others, time set aside daily within the primary curriculum for physical activities would help these children to catch up with their more integrated peers.

Children learn best when they relate physically and emotionally to new material and research has shown that concentration is improved for up to 20 minutes if an individual is allowed regular breaks which involve physical activity when involved in cognitive tasks.

Schoolchildren today are less physically fit than they were in the 1960s. The development of modern baby equipment has resulted in young babies spending less time playing on the floor than in former times. Time spent lying on the tummy helped to develop head control, movement patterns necessary for crawling and also provided tactile stimulation which laid the foundation for the child's sense of body map, a precursor to spatial awareness.

Changes in society such as increased volume of traffic, and an environment which is no longer perceived as safe for young children to be out alone in also means that children do not play unsupervised in the playground, and fewer children walk or cycle to school.

Hours which might have been spent in physical play are replaced sitting in front of a television or a computerscreen, where there is a surfeit of stimulation but no physical interaction.

We are in danger of creating a new generation of hypokinetic (under motion) children - overstimulated in one area and understimulated in another. Some of the problems that these children display, such as hyperactivity, inattention and short-term memory, all have a link to the motor system and the balance mechanism.

A well-organised balance system indicates a well-organised brain. Balance is trained through movement. Those children who are unable to stay still are showing that their balance and motor systems are not yet sufficiently mature to remain still for long periods of time; they need to move to get their brains into gear.

It is time that we recognised that the brain does not learn by itself; the body learns too, and if we are to educate our children properly we must encourage developmental parity between the body and the brain. Physical education is as important as the teaching of literacy and maths in the early learning years.

Sally Goddard Blythe is based at the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, 4, Stanley Place, Chester. CH1 2LU.


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