Is your child clumsy? Here’s how it could affect his grades in school.
While other parents clamour to give their little ones a head start in their ABCs and 123s, Poh Ying Bin is more concerned about whether his kids, aged two and four respectively, are getting their daily dose of running, jumping and climbing.
“I’m pretty chill when it comes to their academic learning. At the moment, I’d rather my kids get plenty of opportunity to explore and work on their motor skills, balance and coordination,” says the 29-year-old dad, whose third child is due this month.
Before you dismiss him as another New Age-y parent, consider this: Increasingly, child developmental studies have found that how confidently Junior moves, maintains his balance, throws and catches a ball or even tie his shoelaces, can predict how well he will learn in school later.
A rehabilitation trainer with Aileron Wellness who specialises in the development and movement of the body, Ying Bin understands why those seemingly trivial movement milestones are important for kids: They are the basic ingredients required for the development of sound thinking skills, which will prepare them for academic learning.
In fact, even the simple act of reaching out for a cup gives Junior’s brain a good workout, says Ying Bin.
“In doing so, our body has to sort out the most efficient way to get the cup. For example, you can bend your elbow or flex your wrist or spine. That is why every time a child learns or performs a movement skill, he is also working parts of his brain, and this can cross over to benefit academic learning,” he explains.
More clumsy kids now
Yet, experts tell Young Parents that they are seeing an uptrend of “clumsier” kids who tend to fumble through crucial motor skills required for healthy development.
Today’s “bubble-wrapped children” have fewer opportunities to explore and too much screen time, shares baby and child development expert Jane Williams, general manager of research and education at Kindyroo Australia, Asia and Europe.
A spokesman for children’s fitness centre My Gym Singapore agrees, saying: “Compared with previous generations, parents are now more protective of their children.”
There is also a greater emphasis on academic development, and many parents tend to consider physical activity a trivial pursuit, adds education specialist Rebecca Goh-Quek from Kinderland Educare Services.
(Also read: Can dance lessons help your clumsy child?)
The struggle to learn
But that is a misconception, says Dr Williams. Hothousing kids from an early age does not make them smarter.
“While one part of the brain may be stimulated, for example with flashcards, the rest of the brain is left languishing. If the child does not have the opportunity to practise and master movement skills, important neural pathways (connections in the brain) required for complex and creative thinking cannot develop,” she explains.
But there is another reason why clumsy kids struggle to learn well: Many school activities involve a motor component, and children who have difficulty keeping up with tasks like writing, cutting and pasting, may avoid them, says occupational therapist Charmaine Ooi from the Child Development Unit at National University Hospital (NUH).
Instead of focusing on lessons, they are likely to be preoccupied with “thinking about” how to move – for example, control a pencil and copy from the whiteboard at the same time.
“These children struggle to take in everything that is taught in the classroom, and tire more easily as their body and brain are working a whole lot harder to keep up,” says Dr Williams.
Even sitting still in class requires a good measure of balance and motor control, and kids who lack these skills find it hard to remain seated without squirming.
“These ‘wrigglers’ are also usually the ones who find learning difficult, purely because they’ve missed half of the teacher’s instructions as they are distracted by a body that struggles to find a comfortable position in a chair,” she explains.
(Also read: Why can’t she concentrate?)
Move it, now
A case in point: A Finnish study has found that clumsy kids have poorer grades in school. In the study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2013, children who did not perform well in agility, speed and dexterity tests also did more poorly in reading and arithmetic test scores than those with better motor skills.
While kids with poorer motor skills do not necessarily end up having learning difficulties, My Gym’s spokesman says they probably need more time to understand certain concepts compared to their peers.
She adds that they may also be less confident when exploring new environments, which can hinder learning.
So, when’s the best time to get Junior to hone his motor skills? The sooner, the better.
Right from birth, babies need to move and explore as movement affects how the brain wires itself, says Kindyroo’s Dr Williams.
Ideally a child’s movement patterns should be synchronised and smooth by the school-going age of around five, she adds.
But if your older kid has missed out on his early movement skills, don’t fret.
NUH’s Charmaine says the brain, especially that of young ones, are “naturally malleable” when learning new skills.
(Also read: Stop dawdling! How to get your kids to move faster)
Practice makes perfect
According to the experts, motor skills also usually develop in a sequential, step-by-step fashion, so don’t rush your kid’s movement milestones.
For example, babies who are propped up to sit before they are ready tend to “bottom shuffle” rather than crawl, a movement pattern that is important in honing vision and hand-eye coordination – both of which are important for learning, Dr Williams shares.
“It’s not when the motor skill occurs, but that it does.
“It is also important to make sure the child progresses through every motor skill pattern – the brain needs the first motor skill to be practised, remembered and be automatically in place before learning the next one,” she says.
It is also not enough to just let your kid practise his skills a few times.
Repetition is the key when it comes to developing and mastering such skills, Rebecca says.
That is why Ying Bin eschews after-dinner TV time and instead, gives his kids plenty of time and space to “run around” in the evenings.
“At their age, my preschool kids are exploring bigger movement skills like stepping over obstacles, hopping and moving up and down slopes. They need plenty of opportunities to practise those skills, so most of their activities currently revolve around playing outdoors – at the park, playground, beach or void deck,” he says.
To get their little ones moving, parents do not necessarily have to use newfangled toys or gadgets.
“Often, time spent in the pool or park, or a simple ball game, is more than enough to encourage a child to learn through movement. My kids taught me that a container with its lid on can make a great fine motor development toy,” Ying Bin shares.
Most importantly, support and encouragement are the key to helping them master their movement skills.
“Every child is unique and what is important is to provide them with lots of opportunities to play and engage in fun games involving a variety of movement,” Kinderland Educare Services’ Rebecca adds.
“Start simple, then gradually challenge them with more difficult tasks and remember, always praise and encourage them.”
This article was first published in Young Parents in 2016.