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Study of motoric skillfulness in children offers window into development of perceptual, cognitive, and affective processes

This is an excerpt from Motor Learning and Development by Pamela Haibach, Greg Reid, and Douglas Collier.

Importance of Understanding Fundamental Movement Skills

Researchers and practitioners, as well as social critics, have addressed why the timely and appropriate acquisition of fundamental movement skills is crucial to the development of young children. From a scientific vantage point, Whitall (2003), as noted earlier, has suggested that careful study of motoric skillfulness in the young child offers a window into the development of perceptual, cognitive, and affective processes. There are also clinical reasons for careful study, as a significant number of young children struggle with their movement skills. An understanding of the level of movement skill development that should be expected of children of a given chronological age helps us to develop individualized, educative programs for students who struggle with their movement skills.

Across all societal groups, people have become more sedentary over the past two decades, with a concomitant increase in obesity and the host of health risks that accompany obesity (Mokdad et al., 1999). Teasing out the relative contributions and interactions of diet and physical inactivity, as well as genetic predispositions to obesity remains challenging; however, it is clear that inactivity plays a significant role in reducing healthful living. An important task, therefore, is to identify the factors that are likely to maintain appropriate physical activity levels throughout the life span. An array of motor developmentalists (Clark & Metcalfe, 2002; Gallahue & Ozmun, 2005; Whitall, 2003) have argued strongly that competence in fundamental motor skills is essential if individuals are to remain active over the course of their lives. Regarding the importance of establishing strong foundational skills, Clark and Metcalfe (2002) note that an inability to perform fundamental locomotor and object control (manipulative) skills will result in limited opportunities for physical activity as children age because the prerequisite skills will not be adequately developed.

With poorly developed stability, locomotor, and manipulative skills, young learners are clearly at a disadvantage when it comes to taking part in games and activities. Before too long, the requirements of play become more demanding. Movements have to be done more quickly; decisions regarding which pattern to use become more complicated; and the consequences of making the wrong play, or choosing the right play but making an error, become more important. It is little wonder that so many children stop moving. They see no reason to participate in activities that they are not good at and that lead to derision on the part of peers, often in very public ways. As Wall (personal communication, September 15, 1973) has pointed out, when a student struggles with reading, a good teacher likely will not embarrass him by having him read aloud to his classmates. When it comes to physical activities, there often is no choice. In a high-stakes game of kickball at recess, when the ball comes to a child and bounces off her hands, the result is public humiliation. The child sees no reason to endure this if she does not have to. Clark and Metcalfe (2002) noted that the acquisition of a solid base of fundamental movement skills was a prerequisite to enjoying the multiple benefits of sport and lifetime activities. In essence, in order for physical activity to become an integral part of one’s life—with the concomitant physical and psychological health benefits—it is imperative to have a solid base of fundamental movement skills. This is in addition to the more general but still tremendously important benefits of movement as it relates to the acquisition of cognitive and affective information about one’s place in the environment and how one relates to that place.

Gabbard (2008) noted that how children acquire and develop fundamental motor skills has likely been the most carefully studied area in motor development. Indeed, beginning with Wild’s seminal work on overarm throwing (Wild, 1938), researchers and practitioners have been intrigued with the apparent age-related changes in fundamental motor skills, as well as the components that make up a particular skill. Whereas much of the earlier work focused on cataloging age-related (as well as gender related) changes in fundamental movement skills from a quantitative or product perspective (that is, how fast, how far, or how high), more recent work has attended to the qualitative or process-related changes in fundamental movement skills over time (Gallahue and Ozmun, 2005). It should be intuitively clear that if a child’s form (that is, his mechanics) is closer to a mature level of execution, the outcome will be better. As an example, if Juan is in right field and takes a long contralateral step, pointing his toe at his target, he will likely throw the baseball farther and more accurately than if he did not take a step. The stepping action would be considered to be at a mature level, while not stepping would be considered to be at the initial stage. If, on the other hand, Juan was playing darts, taking a contralateral step would hinder his performance; he would be much better off taking a small step, if any, with the leg on his throwing side (an ipsilateral step). Gallahue and Cleland-Donnelley (2003) have suggested that practitioners use a three-tiered system to classify the level of development for a given fundamental motor skill; the tiers are initial, elementary, and mature. As discussed later, the manner in which researchers and practitioners examine qualitative changes in movement skills has been an area of debate over the past five decades.

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