Early childhood educators tell me a lot of stories when I keynote or train.
And since I’ve been speaking and training for almost four decades, you can
imagine just how many stories there have been. Lately, though, I keep
hearing the same three stories from teachers throughout the country.
Here’s the first of what they’re telling me:
1. More children are unable to cross the midline of the body.
Sadly, this isn’t surprising, considering one pediatrician’s contention
that infants are spending upward of 60 waking hours a week in
things, like car seats, high chairs, and such. One of my colleagues calls
this “containerized kids.” Another refers to it as “bucket babies.” Funny
names for a not-so-funny situation.
In some ways the problem dates back to 1994, when the American Academy of
Pediatrics created the Back to Sleep campaign to reduce the incidence of
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Happily, the suggestion that babies be
put on their backs to sleep had the desired effect. Unhappily, people
seemed to forget that the second part of the campaign slogan was “Tummy to
Play.” As a result, fewer babies are spending time on their tummies,
meaning that, among other things, they’re not developing the muscles
necessary for crawling and creeping, cross-lateral movements that promote
the ability to cross the body’s midline.
Another factor is the busyness of daily life in our society. Parents are in
a hurry, and manufacturers and marketers have presented such solutions as
car seats that can be carried from the car to the home and used indoors
while moms and dads get dinner and take care of the many other chores
awaiting them at the end of the day. Mostly gone are the days of the
playpen, which may have seemed to some to be “cage-like,” but which at
least offered the baby freedom of movement! She could roll over, slide on
her belly, move on hands and knees, pull herself to standing, and
bounce—without the aid of a confining bouncy chair. She could even practice
walking while holding on.
As a result of today’s sedentary behaviors, children are not only unable to
cross the midline; also, they grow up lacking confidence in their movement
skills. And children who feel “clumsy” or “klutzy” are children who won’t
take part in any physical activity, let alone the recommended minimum of
60 minutes daily
. This has a grave impact on their physical and social/emotional health.
Additionally, Dr. Marjorie Corso conducted research in which she discovered
that there’s a correlation between body-space awareness and paper-space
awareness. One example of this is that children unable to cross the midline
of the body were sometimes reading and writing down the vertical center of
the page. Sometimes they even wrote halfway across the page, turned the
paper over, and started again!
The question now, of course is: what are we to do about all this?
The answer is simple, really: we let children be children! They’re born
with a love of movement. If we give them the time, the space, and the
opportunity to move, nature will take its course!
But we can also be a bit more intentional. We can encourage cross-lateral
movement by inviting children to get on the floor and move like kitties,
puppies, snakes, seals, and spiders, and by playing “mirror” games using
movements that cross the body’s midline.
Mostly, we can refuse to buy into the myth that the mind and body are
separate! What impacts the body’s development impacts the brain’s
development, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the better off our
children will be.
2. Children don't know how to play anymore.
When I did my first
professional development training
in 1981, never in my wildest imaginings could I have foreseen teachers
complaining that children don’t know how to play. Yet this is the
second thing I’m hearing from educators on a regular basis.
This is especially shocking because pretty much every young animal on the
planet plays. It’s how they learn to be who they are! Kittens
stalk each other in preparation for stalking birds and mice. Puppies and
fox cubs engage in rough-and-tumble play to learn social skills. When
ground squirrels play
, they go on to be more coordinated and better mothers. Many animals, it
seems, play simply because it feels good.
Play is an essential part of nature’s plan. And if children are at a loss
as to how to play, then something is seriously wrong.
Think back to your own childhood. I’m betting that a great many of your
memories involved playing—much of it outdoors. I remember games of pretend
(frontier woman comes first to mind) that engaged me for days on end. I
couldn’t wait to get outside to continue the saga. The dramatic play
stimulated my imagination and has served me well in the years since.
I remember learning how to do cartwheels down the middle of the road. I
didn’t go on to become a gymnast, but mastering that particular skill after
much, much hard work demonstrated what could be achieved with determination
And I remember the friends I played with. Interacting, negotiating, and
creating with them absolutely taught me how to be part of society.
So it’s worrisome when teachers tell me that children only know how to
imitate characters they’ve seen on screens, or that they go outside and
simply stand around because they don’t know what else to do.
Some of the reasons behind this aberration are painfully clear. Between
digital devices and television, children have a multitude of images at
their fingertips. They have no need to imagine because marketers
and video producers have already done all the imagining for them. As a
result, when asked to expand their minds and be inventive, children can’t
get beyond what they’ve previously seen. Thus, their dramatic play involves
characters and scenarios already familiar to them.
And, of course, there’s the structure of their lives. The days of
today’s children are scheduled beyond anything most of their predecessors
experienced. Children in earlier times had downtime and faced boredom,
learning how to use both to their benefit.
Beyond the lack of downtime, over-scheduled kids simply don’t know how to
make decisions for themselves, because they’re used to being told what to
do. It’s no wonder, between school and organized sports and lessons, that
when set free upon a playground, they’re at a loss as to what comes next.
It’s simply not possible to switch from being adept at taking and following
orders to being a self-starter.
So, what are early childhood professionals to do when they discover that
the children in their care don’t know how to play? The same thing they do
with every other aspect of early childhood education: they facilitate
Part of that facilitation comes in the form of offering children the space,
time, and materials necessary to explore. If children aren’t overscheduled
in the classroom, and they have a variety of materials that stimulate the
imagination, dramatic or constructive play are the likely outcomes. When
there are plastic hoops, a variety of balls, and plenty of loose parts
outdoors, active play is more likely to occur. But, even then, they may
need more from you.
When a child is “stuck,” imitating a character or standing motionless on
the playground, you can join the play, modeling the possibilities for
taking the play further and asking questions that provoke new responses
from the children—for example, “What do you think I should do with these
twigs?” Once they’re engaged, you can simply step away, avoiding the
temptation to make the play adult-directed, and the possibility that the
children will come to rely on you for what comes next.
Yes, it’s incredibly sad that today’s children are failing at something so
basic—something that’s a biological imperative. But if early childhood
professionals understand the role of play in child development—as every
early childhood professional should—we can ensure that this sad trend fails
3. The children have no fine motor control.
“The children can’t grip a crayon or paintbrush. The children can’t use
scissors. The children don’t know how to hold a pencil.”
On and on it goes—much of it coming from kindergarten and first-grade
teachers. And the sad part is, this isn’t a surprise at all.
There are two major reasons why. The first is that the little ones are far
more likely to be holding a digital device these days than a crayon or pair
of scissors. Go to any restaurant where families dine—or to a doctor’s
office, or anywhere else parents and kids gather—and you won’t see a child
coloring while the family waits. They’re not even talking to each other
because they’re all too busy engaging with their own cell phones or
tablets. If they’re using any muscles at all it’s simply to swipe a screen.
Children who grow up swiping instead of coloring, cutting, and painting do
not develop the fine motor skills they need to hold a pencil and write. To
button and unbutton their clothes. To properly hold a utensil for eating.
To use a stapler, a bottle of glue, or a toothpaste tube.
The second reason this trend isn’t surprising is that children are spending
so little time crawling, running, jumping, and climbing these days. To
those unfamiliar with motor skill development, that might seem like a
strange connection. But the fact is that control over the body develops
from the top to the bottom of the body, from the inside (trunk) to the
outside (extremities), and from the large muscles to the small muscles.
That means that until the trunk and large muscles are matured, the small
ones in the hands won’t fully develop. This is nature’s plan. This is
immutable. And this is why many experts have said that the best way to help
children learn to write is by letting them climb trees or swing on monkey
This pattern of development doesn’t mean that children can’t practice their fine motor skills until their large muscles are
ready. On the contrary, young children should have plenty of
opportunity to practice and grow their fine motor skills; and they should
have plenty of appropriate materials and objects with which to do it.
According to occupational therapist Christy Isbell, in her book,
Mighty Fine Motor Fun
, these include “a wide variety of open-ended materials such as paper,
drawing utensils, glue, clay, and small blocks.” Christy also tells us that
the children “should spend more time playing with manipulatives than
practicing writing skills”—because if young children are pushed to write
before their hands are physically ready, it may have a negative impact.
Naturally, while they’re doing all of this fine motor practice, children
should also have plenty of opportunity to crawl, run, jump, and climb!
If the children themselves were allowed to choose how to spend their time,
they would be playing, as they were meant to do. And that play
would involve and improve both large and small muscles, as it
simultaneously developed their brains, resilience, problem-solving skills,
and all the other wonderful attributes they were meant to learn through
play. Instead, adults—either because they don’t truly understand, or are in
too much of a hurry—are ignoring the laws of child development. And, sadly,
children are paying the price.
Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the education of
the whole child since 1980. Check out her YouTube channel,
Active Learning with Rae
, and learn more about her keynotes, consulting, and books, including
What If Everybody Understood Child Development?
Active Learning Across the Curriculum
, at www.raepica.com..