A Simple Solution to the Decline in the Physical Fitness and Ability in Children


I presently run a professional karate dojo in Finland and teach both karate and recreational gymnastics to children of all ages and abilities. Six of my karate students are now on the Finnish National Team. Over the years I have observed the physical development of hundreds of children, from as young as three through to adulthood, and have learned how to teach skill-focused movement successfully.

Over the past few years I have noticed a remarkable decline in the physical capabilities of the children who start classes with me. I am talking about their general body awareness, core strength, overall muscle tone, flexibility and even the ability to follow verbal instructions about physical movement.

As a sports instructor and educator, it is both alarming and heartbreaking to see that the level of physical ability in children has deteriorated so rapidly. Their basic body movement, spatial awareness and understanding of movement instructions is poor. This results in the children being moody, harder to inspire and lacking the enthusiasm to achieve.

Due to this lack of experience in the children’s early years I find myself having to teach them the fundamental core movement skills before teaching gymnastics or karate. I am talking about simple skills such as how to balance on one leg, how to run in a straight line, how to do a long jump or even how to throw and catch a ball. These skills should be learned in the early years and they should be taught diligently, purposefully and joyfully.

By the age of seven children should be physically prepared for learning more complex sports and hobbies as well as for academic learning. From my perspective and experience, many early-years childcare centres are not paying enough attention to physical development, without which, holistic development is not possible.

The demanding workload and responsibility that teachers have to reach curriculum goals means that movement is not always considered a priority in early-years environments. It is not uncommon to find that children who have learning difficulties may also have poor body coordination. This is incredibly worrying, as it is through play and movement exploration that children become normal self-regulated people who are a joy to be with. Physical literacy should come first through regular movement and the academic learning will naturally follow.

There is also increasing pressure on our children to learn to read and write before their brains and bodies are ready. Premature academic learning also affects their social and emotional well being, too. Sitting still for long periods of time is not natural for young children. It really is true that children learn best when they are having fun.

Intentional movement, especially in early childhood, is vital for cognitive development. Learning the fundamental skills such as balance, axial stability, locomotion and spatial awareness is directly correlated to the brain’s capacity for language development, pattern recognition, organisation, memory retention and many other functions.

Motor-skill development creates the physical structure and neural plasticity in the brain to sequence patterns for academic learning. The vestibular system in the inner ear controls balance and spatial awareness. This corresponds to placing letters in the correct order to form words and to put words together to form sentences. Movement in specific patterns, such as in hopscotch, enhances the brain’s ability to code symbols and for the eyes to track visual fields.

I am really trying to stress how important it is for children to learn and to practice “skill-focused” movement in the early years with an observant and encouraging teacher. This gives a solid foundation for physical and academic growth. It also allows for early detection of physical and cognitive problem areas that can be acted on and rectified before a child starts school and delves into more focused academic learning.

A Simple Solution

Implementing structured movement opportunities throughout the day takes a little planning and creative thinking, but it is the single most effective way to increase the physical ability and fitness of young children. Here are a few strategies and ideas to help you add more physical activity into your days.

Daily movement ideas

☑ Create a list of animal movements to do when walking in a line.
☑ Incorporate one stretching activity a day into your morning circle time.
☑ Introduce a daily balance challenge using different body parts.
☑ Get active outdoors with long rope skipping or ball games.
☑ Play Simple Simon Says: excellent and easy-to-do at any time.
☑ Play Musical Movement: move while the music plays,balance when it stops.

Planning

☑ Take stock of your equipment.
☑ Consider adding balls, beanbags, hoops and ropes for each child.
☑ Consider changing the furniture around to provide more space for movement.
☑ Find some fun music tracks.
☑ Plan movement ideas for each day.
☑ Allow time for movement in your daily and weekly schedules.

Teaching

☑ Teach with energy. Find ways to make simple movement activities fun.
☑ Inspire your children to move well and move together with them.
☑ Encourage pretend play and creativity.
☑ Be observant. Challenge the coordinated and encourage those who are not.
☑ Use your voice to direct and inspire.

All children, no matter their age, love to move and need to move. It is up to the adults who share their days to inspire them to move often and with joy and confidence!

Please make the commitment to get your children moving more and then watch them flourish as they become physically confident, coordinated and strong. Here is a chart to give you a clear understanding of the basic fundamental movement skills and the activities that support them. Please do consider whether your children are practicing activities that support each of these types of movement. You can start right away getting by your free hopscotch printable graphic and video.

Darlene Koskinen

This article was written for Teach Middle East Magazine
September 2019 / Volume 1 / Issue 7