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During the Covid-19 pandemic, life had changed dramatically for our little people.
Playground equipment was off limits. Until recently, we could only head out for 1 hour of activity outside the home. Nurseries, child-care facilities and activity events shut their doors for the time being.
The focus shifted to the home setting for all the play, activity, learning and fun.
It was certainly a challenge for parents and children to adjust to this ‘new normal’
The aim of this blog is to give you a few suggestions of activities that can be done at home or in any green space around your local area to boost one very important sensory area for your child.
We are all familiar with the 5 senses of sight, sound, hearing, smell and taste. But this 6th sense sometimes called The Movement Sense, is equally as important. It is vital that this system be developed within the early years of a child’s life as co-ordinated movement is fundamental for all life’s activities.
This Movement Sense involves the Vestibular System and proprioception. The Vestibular System is a sensory system that is responsible for providing our brain with information about motion, head position, and helping to know where our body is in space. It’s actually one of the oldest of the sensory systems, thought to have evolved about 0.6 billion years ago! The sensing ‘machinery’ is found in the inner ear and is essential for normal movement and balance.
Here’s a 2 minute clip that tells you more about this Vestibular System if you’re interested.
Balance is not something we automatically have; it is something that we do. And it needs practice, lots of it! This means that our vestibular systems needs regular stimulation to build up those neural pathways which help our children in their day to day lives.
Sadly, children sitting still for long periods of time without moving their heads in a range of movements does nothing to stimulate this vital sensory system.
The vestibular machinery in the inner ear responds to three different types of movement and it’s vital to allow your children to do activities that stimulate all three types.
Activities like spinning on a roundabout or spinner at a local playground are perfect for simulating this part of the inner ear.
Log rolling down a gentle grassy slope is another fun easy activity for this. You can do it on a flat surface too, but it’s a little harder that way. Just make sure you check the grassy area for any unwanted items before they roll along the area.
Want to make it more challenging? Can they roll one way, then back the way they came? Or can they roll with their arms stretched out high above their heads, making a peak with their hands together. I call these ‘rocket ship arms’.
Of course, if your child loves dancing, spinning round during a dance routine is a perfect motion to practice this movement too
Activities like rocking and swinging give this part of the inner ear a fabulous workout.
Initially, the passive gentle rocking of a cradle or being rocked in a parent’s arms helps to stimulate this system.
As the child develops, and when there is a level of muscle strength and postural control, rocking toys can feature in the play mix.
Or a swing. This snap is of our Solvej Baby and Toddler swings that can be set up inside the house or outside on a verandah or under a tree. What child doesn’t love to spend hours swinging backward and forwards – it’s a gorgeous feeling!
This is the least stimulated vestibular movement in everyday life. When a boat tilts in a strong wind or seas or an aeroplane banks from side to side, this part of the inner ear is stimulated.
Wobble Boards are the perfect toy to practice this movement safely. First they can sit, cross legged on the board and wobble side to side. When they get better with balancing, they can try to stand up.
If you don’t want to buy a wobble board, you can easily make something at home that practices the same movement. I’ve created one here with a short plank of wood, sitting on a half round log from the log pile. Make sure that the wood is smooth as you don’t want to get splinters in feet.
Want to make it more challenging?
Use a larger log underneath or use a completely round log which will have much less stability.
You’ll notice that young children don’t get dizzy doing any of these movements where adults certainly do! I go weak at the knees at the thought of getting on a Waltzer these days! This is just because the connections between balance and other centres are still being formed in our children.
With any of these activities, it’s essential that you fully supervise your child when at play.
So, the tiny Vestibular System, tucked away in the inner ear, is a vital cog in the heathy development of your child.
Not only is it king in developing your child’s balance and co-ordinated movement. This system has also been shown to have a profound effect on emotions, and is essential in higher cognitive skills such as reading and writing, which require directional awareness coupled with the improved integration with the other sensory systems and benefits in stabilising eye movements.
In a previous post, I’ve talked about a reduction in the development of gross and fine motor skills that can cause learning problems at school.
And this worrying trend was one of the main reasons for starting up my business.
Have you heard about the Movement for Learning project? Probably not. But this project directly addresses these issues.
The FREE program, available to primary schools, is the brain child of Professor Pat Preedy. Pat is passionate about early childhood education and has led international research contributing greatly to our knowledge and understanding of the development and needs of babies and young children.
She teamed up with researchers at Loughborough University to develop a simple daily 15 minute program for 4 -6 year olds that has been shown to improve physical development levels as well as benefits in learning and behaviour. Take a look at the video below to find out more.
The daily program gives children opportunities to move, improve movement (motor) skills and inhibit baby reflexes that should no longer be present.
The children carry out really simple tasks like throwing, catching, balancing, drawing large letters in the air, articulating sounds and skipping.
If you’re an Early Years educator, Primary School teacher or a concerned parent, take a look at their Movement for Learning website and contact the team to sign up. You’ll get plenty of support to set the program up in your school and the effects will make a massive difference to the children under your care.
Listen to what some of the schools that already do the program have to say in the short video below:
Any questions about the project? I’m happy to chat more about it. Just get in touch.
In my previous post “What are Gross Motor Skills and Why are They Important?”, I talked about the importance of motor skills, especially in those early years when your child’s brain is developing at warp speed.
But, what exactly is the link between motor skills development, your child’s learning and their ability to read and write? I’m going to introduce you to a part of the brain that is pretty essential in this. Read on to find out more…..
You’ve probably heard about left and right sides (hemispheres) of the brain and how the left side is responsible for more logical and analytical thinking whereas the right side is the more creative and artistic side.
It’s obviously far more complex than that though. As Dr. Sarah Mckay, a Oxford University trained Neurologist points out in her article The Myth of the Creative-right vs Analytical-left brain:debunked.
“…this simplistic right-brained vs left-brained view of how the brain works is not grounded in evidence!
…Speech and language, for example, are found in the left hemisphere, but not ALL aspects of speech are left-sided. Intonation, for example, is found on the right.
..believing that you are ‘creative but not analytical’, or ‘logical and unintuitive’ and that is hard-wired into your brain, is a rather limiting belief and probably becomes self-fulfilling after a while.”
It is now widely accepted that both sides of the brain are necessary to perform most tasks, they just handle them a bit differently.
There’s no debate however that the left side of the brain controls the movement of the right side of the body and the right side of the brain controls the movement of the left side of the body.
And the part of the brain that links the two sides is called the Corpus Callosum. Check out this DTI image of the structure below, it’s highlighted in orange. It’s a massive bundle of nerve cells and acts a bit like a major highway of ‘communication’ between the left and right sides of the brain. It starts to develop around the 12 weeks stage of human gestation and continues to develop after birth.
This connection between the two sides of the brain is essential for all functions that require integration between the two sides of the body. That list of functions is pretty huge if you think about it!!! Right from getting out of bed at the start of the day, both sides of the body are involved in most movements we do.
From a school learning perspective, reading a book where your child’s eyes scan from left to right across a page or writing words across a page. Using scissors to hold the paper and cut with the other hand, playing a musical instrument or playing sports. They all require both left and right sides of the brain to be communicating in a coordinated way.
As each side of the brain has sensory and motor control of the opposite side of the body. Moving both sides of the body at the same time in a rhythmical fashion will fire up the Corpus Callosum and boost connections between the two sides of the brain.
And the more you do these activities, the more effective and long lasting the nerve connections will be. Have you ever noticed that when you go for a walk, you have much more clarity of thought? I know I do!
The change in habits of our children today are resulting in this connection between left and right brain being under developed. This is causing problems for children entering the school system.
It’s not all doom and gloom though.
There are certain movements that you can do to supercharge development of the Corpus Callosum and the earlier these are done in a child’s life, the better!
A baby’s crawling movements activate both hemispheres in a balanced way and is a great example of bi-lateral coordination. That’s why the crawling stage is so important in brain development, don’t rush for your child to be on their feet too early. Both sides of the body move at the same time completing alternating patterns of movement with arms and legs. Riding a bike, walking, running, climbing are all other examples.
When children are sitting on a seat playing with an electronic device, they don’t do this and the brain connections between the two hemispheres aren’t stimulated anywhere near as much.
Crossing the mid line is the movement of one side of the body across the body’s centre line to the other side. Activities like swinging a bat, kicking a ball, hand clapping games, touching elbow to alternate knee are all examples of this. Again, during these activities the brain sends signals backward and forwards from one side of the brain to the other repeatedly, strengthening the link between them.
That’s why I’m so keen to promote ride-on vehicles such as Trikes and Balance Bikes that allow young children from the age of 1 year and up to repeatedly practice bi-lateral coordination and get those Corpus Callosum nerves firing from an early age!
Other ride-on vehicles like Wishbone Flip and Mini Flips encourage exactly the same development.
What activities do you do to get the Corpus Callosum firing?
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Until next time, keep active,
My store focuses on toys that develop Gross Motor Skills but what exactly are gross motor skills and why are they important for your child?
I’ve been visiting kindergardens and pre-school centres to give presentations about this topic.
The take home message is that developing gross motor skills not only helps your child in building the skills for any physical task such as walking, running, sitting upright, throwing, jumping, skipping etc. that they might encounter in their lives.
BUT, by developing these skills, your child will develop sections of the brain that will have a positive impact on their ability to read and write at school.
Gross Motor Skills are defined as all the processes in the body that are involved in the movement of large muscle groups. So this starts with the sensory system detecting the stimulus. Involves the nerve cells through out the body. Then, processing by the nerve cells in the brain. Finally the muscles bring about the action.
The traditional 5 senses are involved: Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell and Touch
But also proprioception, a sense that measures the relative position of parts of your body and strength of effort applied (this involves muscles, tendons and joints). And the Vestibular system, located in the inner ear, which is involved in balance and spatial orientation. These two further senses are sometimes linked together to be called the movement sense.
We are less active than ever before for a variety of reasons and this reduction in activity is having some quite significant consequences for our youngsters. Some of these are mentioned below:
This last bullet point is a key one for me. There are many research articles that are highlighting this developing problem such as this one from The Independent Education News section.
Without appropriate development of gross and fine motor skills, children have a reduced ability to grip a pen or pencil or sit upright at the desk for learning. They don’t have the endurance to last a whole day at school. Some can’t track with their eyes across the page to read or move their hands across a page to write in a coordinated way. Many children haven’t built nerve connections between left (speech and language processing) and right brain hemispheres (visual spatial and face recognition) effectively to co-ordinate learning. It’s a worrying trend!
initial map for brain development.
At birth, your child’s brain is
the size of your child’s adult brain.
By 3 years old, it’s at 80%!
It’s not just about the quantity of nerve cells though, it’s all about the connections!
Significant connections or synapses get made between nerve cells (neurons) during the first years of a child’s life. This effectively programs child development.
A 3 year old will have around 1000 trillion brain connections or synapses which are selectively pruned later on in life.
Nerve cell connections are built by:
So, it’s vital that they are exposed to a range of age appropriate experiences that help build these connections in a positive way.
Not only that, the more often nerve cells pathways fire, the stronger the connections will become so repeated practice at the same activity will help stabilize these connections.
“Neurons that fire together wire together” said Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb
As these brain pathways stabilize, it makes them much harder to change later on. It’s vital to get it right early on in a child’s life.
The foundation of brain development is so important too as higher level pathways are built on lower level ones. You need a strong foundation to gain the more complex and higher order brain processing that will happen later on in their lives.
Invest in your child’s physical development early on and you will be helping to develop an active, well connected brain that will allow your child to flourish at school.
Check out my post Did you know poor Motor Skills Development can impact your Child’s Learning? to find out more on the link between motor skills and a well connected brain ready for learning.
In future posts, I’ll review a range of active toys and show you how each type of toy will stimulate the sensory systems and can benefit your child’s motor skill and brain development
Until then, keep active,