Ian McGowan, Director of the Movement and Learning Centre (Pictures from the website)
At the Movement and Learning Centre I work with children and adolescents who have a range of learning and behavioural difficulties that adversely affect their lives and schooling. In many cases these difficulties have their roots in early stages of development that may have been missed or not become fully developed. This includes the development of movement, balance and postural control. Should an individual not develop competency in movement, balance and postural control, excessive amounts of mental effort will be required to compensate for this, resulting in less capacity being available to attend to the world surrounding the individual, including schooling, rather than to the body.
Given plenty of opportunities to move naturally, most children pass through early stages of development perfectly well and acquire bodily control satisfactorily. The child’s inner drive to move, together with opportunity to move in response to sensory input, results in the development of fundamental general understanding of one’s body and the environment gained from self-motivated, effortful, independent and pleasurable early play. This represents the foundation of all future learning. However, this happens at different rates for different children.
It cannot be assumed that all children of a particular chronological age will demonstrate identical levels of development in the full range of abilities. This is what I observe in children that I work with. The school aged children identified as having some form of educational and/or behavioural difficulty, and for which they will be receiving additional support in the classroom, present with a range of similar symptoms, for example: delays in motor and language development, short attention span and distractibility, fidgety behaviour, misinterpretation of questions, confusion of similar sounding words, difficulty following sequential instructions, poor posture, clumsy and uncoordinated movements, poor organisational skills. Fortunately, with appropriate non-invasive physical intervention, problems with movement, balance and postural control can be alleviated, which in turn better supports learning and behaviour. However, this is dealing with problems after they have occurred when the child is in formal education from P1 onwards. Why is it that so many of our school aged children display problems with movement, balance and postural control and behavioural difficulties which do not support learning in the classroom?
I can make an educated guess based on my 36 years of accumulated experience as a physical educator and child development specialist and from the available evidence collected by academics and other professionals. The early experiences of play for our children in recent years have changed considerably from previous generations and probably involve less self-motivated, effortful, independent and pleasurable early play. Children in the past usually played with fewer commercially produced toys and definitely had less screen time!
For the developing child learning about oneself and the world around them is a joyous experience and largely self-directed with support from parents or other responsible adults, older siblings and eventually peers. This is in contrast to formal education in which children are directed by the teacher and governed by national educational policy. As one expert has noted in his wonderful book The Muse Within (Bjorkvold, 1989) there is a distinct difference between what can be described as child culture and school culture which children are subjected to often before they are developmentally ready. Bjorkvold suggests that children’s early school experience actually represses childhood and the stifling of joyful self-directed learning. As examples of this clash of cultures he offers the following list:
Contrasting these two different cultures, he suggests that early learning experiences of children are unified, authentic and animated as they must be if they are to take permanent root, whilst school learning is of quite a different nature. In this respect Bjorkvold suggests that there is no advantage to starting formal education early. Children need time to develop and that formal school-based learning requires maturation.
It has been noted that many children experience difficulties when starting formal education because they have not developed the fundamental functions that would allow them to succeed. For example poor inhibition associated with weak attention will adversely affect functioning in the school setting. This is an example of a range of executive functions required for mature functioning in life generally and in the classroom. This includes developing bodily control, including manual dexterity in support of hand writing, auditory discrimination of language capabilities which supports the development of phonological abilities required for reading, and cognitive flexibility needed to cope with changing circumstances and learning in the classroom. These functions develop as a result of ongoing learning through play in the early years from birth onwards. A child starting school before they have developed adequate levels of executive functioning will be at a disadvantage. As noted earlier this happens at different rates for each child.
Neurologically the brain rapidly develops from birth onwards and experiences a period of consolidation at around 7 years of age when all of the connections that have been made through a child’s movement and interaction with its environment are secured. Therefore, it would seem reasonable to assume that more children will be developmentally ready for formal education when they have achieved this milestone. Our current situation of children starting school based on their birth date meaning between 4.5 and 5.5 years old would seem misguided leading to the Matthew effect (Gladwell, 2008) whereby a child may have had one year less of development compared to another. To be sure some children are ready for school at an earlier chronological age than others, but the Matthew effect is known to persist if children start formal learning before they are ready. Equally there is little evidence to suggest that children starting school beyond when developmentally they are ready will be held back.
I am well aware from my professional work of many children with poorly developed movement, balance and postural control who struggle with learning and behaviour in school and in life. I am also aware from my email inbox of an increasing number of invitations to conferences on the mental health problems experienced by children today. For sure these issues are not down to any single factor but I suggest that the lack of early experiences of self-motivated, effortful, independent and pleasurable early play and the pressure to meet educational goals in, for example, literacy in school may be playing a part. This then may be causing more children to experience stress and failure leading to problems in becoming successful learners and confident individuals.
Shifting attention and resources to better provision for the early years between age 3 and 7, focussing on play and delaying the start date for entering formal education may be a significant strategy in trying to get things right for more of our children before they go wrong later in the education system. It may also help in recognising the needs of our children based on their own culture before we impose our adult school culture on them.
Director of the Movement and Learning Centre
Bjorkvold, Jon-Roar (1989) The Muse Within – creativity and communication, play and song from childhood through maturity. Harper Collins, New York
Gladwell, Malcolm (2008) Outliers –the story of success. Penguin Books, London