Educators who want to help children develop to their full potential must educate the whole child by addressing physical, mental, and emotional needs. Many programs at elementary schools focus on academic and emotional development, but how many address children’s physical development?
It is increasingly clear that giving short shrift to children’s physical development gives short shrift to children. In fact, more and more modern research shows that programs focused on improving children’s physical skills enhance not only their physical health but also their academic and emotional health!
We are elementary physical education teachers who created one such program—a perceptual-motor learning laboratory (PMLL). We attended workshops, contacted experts in the field, and researched the topic. We then built a blueprint for a perceptual-motor learning laboratory and implemented it at our school. For the past 6 years, we have been using, refining, and improving the program, which has been so successful that it has been integrated into another 45 schools! What kind of success have we seen? Consider the following example.
In the 2007–2008 school year, our kindergarten physical education classes included twin boys. Each twin, who for the sake of our story will be called Allen and Benny, had a different classroom teacher. By watching the twins’ behaviors around their peers in a regular physical education environment, we observed that Allen, the dominant twin, was more socially advanced than Benny. When we tested the boys in our motor lab, we also found that Allen scored 19 points higher than Benny did on the gross motor test. Both boys were still developing on their reading readiness test, but Benny’s lower gross motor score qualified him for our lab, whereas Allen’s score did not.
At the end of our 32-week program, the reading readiness test results were made available to parents, and the boys’ mother came to school with great concern because even as Benny had passed his reading readiness test and tremendously improved his scores on the gross motor test, Allen’s scores had stayed the same. As a result, the boys’ mother began to question the competence of Allen’s teacher.
When this concern was brought to our principal, we were asked to look into the pretest and post-test scores, and we found that Benny had improved by 52 points. When the twins had been pretested for their gross motor skills, Allen had scored a 91 and Benny a 72. These scores tell us that Benny was functioning at or below 3 years of age in locomotor and object-control skills, whereas Allen was functioning at his appropriate age level. However, when these boys were post-tested (by professors at the University of Texas San Antonio to avoid bias), Benny’s score rose from 72 to 124, but Allen’s remained at 91. Furthermore, Benny passed his reading readiness test, but Allen did not.
Our principal reminded the boys’ mother about Benny’s participation in our lab, and they discussed Benny’s improvements. The boys’ mother informed us that there had also been a complete role reversal in the twins’ behavior. Benny had become the “alpha twin,” and in fact Allen is still trying to catch up.
This is only one success story about children in our lab, and it is particularly persuasive since it offers a comparison of two children raised in the same environment by the same parents. We have written Perceptual-Motor Activities for Children so that you can achieve similar results in your classroom. This easy-to-use guide shows you how to build your own perceptual-motor learning laboratory by using equipment that you most likely already have in your facility, as well as a few items that you can create and customize. It will take some work, but a lot of it is fun (e.g., building special mats and creating activity stations). You will also need some help, but volunteers who learn how effective the program is can be quickly won over to the effort—an effort that can change the lives of the children you teach.
Perceptual-motor skills allow sensory information to be successfully obtained and understood with appropriate reaction. Perceptual deals with obtaining information and motor refers to the outcome of movement. Thus perceptual-motor activities require children to use their brain and body together to accomplish tasks—for example, walking on a balance beam while reciting the alphabet.
Think about it: To perform well in school, children must do many things that require their mind and muscles to work together as a team. In fact, all communication skills—reading, writing, speaking, and gesturing—are motor-based abilities. We often think of them strictly as academic skills, but, for example, in learning to write, a child must not only know the alphabet and understand how words are formed by combining letters but also translate that knowledge into action by gripping, moving, and stabilizing a pencil while using perception (sight) to adjust her or his movements in order to create the correct pattern. In order for the child to learn, the mind and the body must work together.
Participation in perceptual-motor activities enables students to develop greater levels of body control and encourages greater effort in all areas of the school curriculum. Young students who possess adequate perceptual-motor skills enjoy better coordination, greater body awareness, stronger intellectual skills, and a more positive self-image. In contrast, students who lack these skills often struggle with coordination, possess poor body awareness, and feel less confident. Research also shows that perceptual-motor development is critical to children’s development of brain pathways that cross the right and left hemispheres. Because of this, students with poor perceptual-motor development often experience difficulty in learning to read and write when they are in the primary grades. Enhancing gross motor ability by using lateralities to help develop neural pathways in the brain improves a child’s ability to read and write. Reading and writing are motor-based abilities that require the mind and body to work together. Students who have not been introduced to proper movement (e.g., running, jumping, throwing, catching) tend to have problems cognitively because the pathways in the brain have not been developed. The optimal time to develop these pathways is between ages 3 and 6.
Perceptual-motor activities provide a proven way to improve children’s health and learning in all aspects, and our research shows that students who participate in our program demonstrate significant improvement in all areas of the learning process. Meeting a child’s gross motor needs improves his or her academic readiness and overall behavior. Our students with learning disabilities also show improvement that helps them reach their full potential. In 2009, for example, a first-grade student who was totally nonverbal joined our program on a referral from the campus speech therapist. By the end of the year, the student was reading, writing, and talking in complete sentences. He improved his academic performance tremendously and practiced better self-control when interacting socially with classmates. By moving and learning at the same time, this student developed connections in his brain that established pathways and thus increased his confidence and academic success.
Physical activity builds neural pathways—the connections by which information travels through the brain—and a child whose brain has more neural pathways will be able to learn more easily. It is crucial that we help our children develop perceptual-motor skills. These skills are necessary for preparing a child’s brain to learn; when a child does not properly develop them, he or she will experience difficulty in learning the basic academic skills of reading and writing. Thus a child who has sufficient perceptual-motor skills will be more prepared to learn and will enjoy better coordination and improved self-image. Perceptual-motor experiences build a strong base to support future academic learning. Early intervention is crucial!
Read more about Perceptual-Motor Activities for Children: An Evidence-Based Guide to Building Physical and Cognitive Skills by Jill A. Johnstone and Molly Ramon.