One of the few positives to emerge from the first lockdown period has been a renewed interest by parents and professionals in the health and wellbeing of young children. Quite rightly - children’s mental health is a priority – but we should never underestimate the profound link in children’s lives between their emotional equilibrium and need to move.
Early childhood is all about being physically active. Not only is movement considered to be ‘the first language’ of childhood – and ‘thought in action’ – it also provides a supportive and effective framework within which friendships are created and sustained, interests stimulated and extended and new skills acquired and refined.
Being physically confident and competent is essential for young children. Joining in, keeping up and contributing to physical play has a significant impact on their social/communication skills and overall language development.
So, what issues may you have noticed relating to children’s physical development as they return to settings, and how may this area of development be best supported?
These are some of the general concerns that have arisen so far:
Many children have not experienced anywhere near the recommended daily level of physical activity for a very long time, particularly those living in densely populated urban areas. These children may have been kept indoors for extended periods, unable to access available open spaces and prevented from practising the everyday ‘big body movements’ like running, jumping, climbing, digging, swinging, scootering – that provide the necessary means to promote and maintain overall body strength, balance, agility and coordination.
How may diminished time being outside and active in fresh air and natural light impact on children’s general health?
· Exposure to natural light stimulates the neurotransmitter, Serotonin. This is hugely important for young children because it helps them feel alert, active and able to remember. You may have noticed some children are a bit slower to react to instructions or simply cannot remember what these were. With the changing of the clocks it is even more important to use the daylight hours we do have positively and productively.
· Vitamin D in sunlight is also important for supporting children’s immune systems. Vitamin D aids the capture of dietary calcium from the blood into bone structure and helps create a strong skeleton. You may have noticed children’s immune systems are lowered and a higher level of coughs and snuffles are present than is usual for this time of year. They may not be as physically strong as previously noted – so climbing and hanging activities may be a bit more challenging now.
· Remember that that the oxygen level inside is around 11% - outside it is 20% - so being outside and active as much as possible is a vital support for health and wellbeing.
· Sleep: lack of exposure to natural light negatively affects sleep patterns. The blue light that is present in natural daylight stimulates the pineal gland in the brain that regulates the ‘biological clock’ through alternately raising and lowering levels of serotonin and melatonin production in the body. Being outside and active between 8 am – 12 pm ensures that the evening levels of melatonin that support a good night’s sleep are maintained. You may notice that some children have experienced disrupted sleep routines, or a complete absence of healthy sleep habits for a long time. They may arrive tired and irritable with low energy levels and craving sugary snacks – so being physically active is a vital tool to ensure they return to healthy sleep patterns.
If possible, provide plenty of opportunities to play outside, whatever the weather. For at least 45 mins and longer if appropriate. Young children need extended exposure to natural daylight particularly at this time when their health and body systems require proactive support.
How may essential body systems be affected by lowered levels of physical activity?
The proprioceptive system is all about developing body sense, control and management. How we perceive ourselves in space and how we sense where our bodies begin and end relate directly to the maintenance of the proprioceptive sense through continual movement. We all draw on this sense whenever we cook, park, dress, wash hands, brush hair/teeth and navigate our way through crowds. For young children having a fully functioning proprioceptive sense is vital and it may be supported by experiencing ‘big/heavy’ movements including digging, pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying, hanging upside down, jumping, throwing, moving around obstacles and practising how to fit into small spaces.
Prolonged periods of inactivity will not have supported children’s growing proprioceptive sense and you may have noticed individuals who find navigating around obstacles and other people particularly challenging. They may also be stressed by large open spaces and keep to the corners or margins where they feel more secure.
Remember that much of children’s sense of self-identity is dependent on physical action and interaction with others in different environments. If this has been denied for an extended period, they may also be less confident in their physical play and very concerned about keeping to rules and regulations.
It is important to offer lots of opportunities – both inside and outside - that stimulate and support the proprioceptive system. Think of the ‘big/heavy’ movements mentioned previously and find different ways in which children can rehearse them either individually or within a small group.
The vestibular system is the first to be developed in utero – at around 17 weeks. The relevant apparatus is located in the inner ear and is linked to balance, postural control and coordination. A well-developed balance system develops through continual bodily movement so that eventually it can operate automatically and unconsciously. This will free-up the body to perform ‘higher level’ tasks like writing and drawing. It is critical that a strong sense of equilibrium relating to space and gravity emerges over time for young children. This comes through experience of the following movements: twisting, turning, spinning, rocking, swinging, rolling, sliding, tipping, tilting, bouncing, moving very fast and rough -and-tumble play.
You may have noticed some children are fearful of entering wide spaces alone and have lost confidence in their ability to move at speed or to balance and climb. Rough and tumble play may worry them if this has not been a part of their lives for a while. You may also notice that sitting still and listening has become more challenging. It is well worth checking if they are wearing the right sized shoes – at any one time 26% of children are not wearing the correct size – and this will have a serious effect on their ability to balance and move fluently. If/when appropriate consider providing times when children can take their shoes off and strengthen the muscles in the feet and ankles.
To support the vestibular system, try to provide lots of easy opportunities to practise together the movements mentioned previously. Remember this system takes around 7 years to fully develop and needs daily active reminders to function at the optimum level.
Vision and Hearing
If children have been deprived of adequate time to experience physical play outside and have spent extended periods inside engaging with a screen, their visual skills may not be working as effectively as before.
Vision develops through spending time in a stimulating and complex visual landscapes and learning to move through this world with ease and enjoyment. External visual input must be processed alongside internal input that comes through moving in space (linked to the vestibular system) and bodily movement (linked to the proprioceptive system). Good spatial awareness, spatial reasoning and hand-eye coordination will emerge from continual movement experienced in a range of environments.
Being active and outdoors supports the eyes in the following ways:
· To switch at speed from near to far vision – this is a critical skill needed to engage with many classroom activities
· It also supports the ability of the iris to adjust as the body moves from dark to light spaces
· The ability of the eye muscles to control fine eye movement and change to a steady gaze is essential for reading
· It supports the ability of the eyes to understand contrast, shadow and visual textures and to see tone and shade within colours
There is a theory that although extended screen use is known to be a factor in the increasing incidence of myopia in young children – one of the major factors may be their lack of lengthy exposure to natural light in the early years. Natural light is 100-200 times brighter than artificial light and experts consider that daily exposure to 2 hrs of natural light may be an important element in preventing myopia. Over 1M children have undiagnosed vision issues in the UK – so an awareness of the added problems that being at home for so long may have caused is essential.
Being able to make sense of the sound landscape – distinguishing between different voices and sounds such as cars, hoovers, birds, dogs, washing machines – is a skill that is gained through exposure and experience. How sounds relate to each other, what they mean, which way they are coming from and where they are moving to must all be processed and understood.
Being away from the familiar surroundings of settings and community for an extended period may well have affected children’s hearing ability. Some may not have been exposed to English for a time, others may have become used to a very quiet environment and find loud situations difficult to manage, or are now accustomed to one that is loud and fractious and learning to speak quietly again is a challenge.
In this time of re- emergence and recovery, being physically active as much as possible every day is essential to support the bodily senses and systems that may have been under considerable strain for a long time.
Children now need to rediscover their joy in movement - to engage confidently in physical play with their friends, to instigate projects, to investigate different environments and to explore new skills and opportunities in their localities.
So, what would my top tips be:
Approach the recovery of children’s physical abilities gently and recognise the role of movement skills in supporting their overall development and wellbeing. Physical development supports, informs and underpins all areas of learning so getting this right for children is, perhaps, more important at the moment than addressing their perceived ‘learning losses.’
Remember the value of ‘the basics’ – being outside and active as much as possible and the ‘big body movements’ that are the building blocks for all complex movement skills. Also, think of ‘marginal gains’ – the small tweaks and adjustments to daily routines that can ultimately make a significant difference to children’s overall welfare.