How physical activity helps develop kids' brains

Did you know that clumsiness, writing difficulties, even fidgeting and the inability to sit still are all problems in children that could be helped with movement?

The fact that many children arrive at school without the foundational skills for formal learning alerted physio and occupational therapists at Rata South Ltd in Dunedin to develop their Head Start programme. There is an important, and often overlooked, link between an active body and an active mind, and movement is key. Early movement experiences in pre-schoolers influence the way the brain develops, while providing foundational skills for future learning.

Simple skills like holding a pencil or cutting with scissors require not only strength in little hands, but also overall strength in a child to sit and support themselves in a chair. Movement, and lots of it, gives children opportunities to gain essential strength and develop fine and gross motor skills. While this association seems obvious when you stop to think about it, it’s what is going on in the brain that is surprisingly significant. Mark Shirley, one of the physiotherapists behind Head Start says the brain develops in young children through movement experiences. Providing opportunities for children to move allows their brains to integrate their senses. Movement stimulates not only a child's body, but also their brain.

A problem for modern children is that movement is restricted as they spend more time in car seats, pushchairs and in front of the television. So what can we as parents do to encourage more highly beneficial movement in our children? And what movements in particular are good for brain and learning development? We asked Head Start occupational therapist Anna Baker for her recommendations: 


Ideas for Building Concept & Directional Language Skills at Home:
Concept and directional language refers to concepts describing size and direction.

  • Concept language - big, small, short, tall etc.
  • Directional language – on, under, up, down, beside, between etc

Concept and directional language are the building blocks for future writing development and math skills.

  • When you’re reading together talk about the pictures and include concept and directional language in your discussion.
  • When you’re baking together talk about the positions and sizes of biscuits on the tray.
  • When you’re out for a walk stop and look in gardens - look for birds in trees and cats on/under/beside parked cars. Use concept and directional language in your discussion.

Building Body Awareness Skills at Home
Body Awareness refers to your child’s ability to recognise different parts of their body and to understand the relative positions of their body parts. You can help them become more aware of their body by playing games, singing songs and talking about different parts of the body. Good examples are the songs/rhymes Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Simon Says and Hokey Tokey.

Body Awareness is important for children to be able to perform smooth coordinated movements and also for helping them understand spatial awareness (where they are in a space).Tunnel3

  • Talk about the body parts as you touch them “I’ve got your toes..."
  • Complete puzzles of people or faces with your child and talk about all the different body parts you can see
  • In front of a mirror, help your child touch, point to or name their own body parts
  • Play with dolls or action figures that are replicas of the human body, point out their different body parts
  • Sing songs like ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ and help them do the actions
  • Provide your child with lots of opportunity for movement - crawling and climbing over, under, up and down different objects. Build an obstacle course in your lounge or back yard.

Building Fine Motor Skills at Home
To control fine movements, children must be able to hold some parts of their body steady while moving others. This stabilisation develops from the shoulders out to the finger joints during the first four to six years.

Between the ages of four and six children are able to stabilise the arm and begin to use tiny bending and straitening movements of the finger joints for fine hand control.  
Children use their hands with an increasing degree of dexterity as they develop. Try some of these activities to assist your child in developing their fine motor skills:

  • Play with blocks and Duplo, then progress to Lego
  • Get little hands busy in the garden as you weed, plant plants and dig for worms or treasure!
  • Indoor play such as puzzles and dressing dolls can be a good work out for little hands
  • Hammering wood and nails requires good motor control and is lots of fun. Add some bottle tops to the design for some extra flare
  • Climbing provides opportunity for little hands to be strengthened
  • As their skills develop your child will be able to have a go at zips and buttons

Ready for school
We asked Anna if there are some specific activities/movements children can be encouraged to do that have a direct link to the development of motor skills pivotal to classroom success.
Anna replies, "One of the biggest difficulties we see in the classroom when working with children 1:1 are fine motor difficulties. This can be prevented by providing children with lots of access to pre literacy and numeracy resources at home from an early age". Anna suggests:

  • Read together – let your little one turn the pages, have them point to interesting things on the page as you chat about them
  • Have access to a variety of pre writing tools and activities such as magna doodle, whiteboard & easel, pens & paper, stickers, colouring books and finger painting
  • Practice cutting with scissors. Littlies love making collages. You could make cards, pictures, crowns, cover a special box, make wrapping paper

"For children who have an additional dose of energy and may find it difficult sitting on the mat come school days we recommend starting them in a structured activity once they are four. This will allow them short opportunities to control their body and listen to the adult in charge. Pick something that your child will enjoy such as ballet, gym, swimming, a music group or Head Start!" suggests Anna.

Another great suggestion beneficial for the whole family; Anna reiterates the importance of having meals together at the dinner table. "This provides a daily opportunity for your child to stop and sit down while they are attending to a task", says Anna.


Give your child a Head Start
If you are fortunate enough to live in Dunedin, Head Start offer 45-minute classes where children (alongside their parents) participate in a variety of activities to develop foundational movement, cognition and language skills. The benefits of attending the Head Start programme include helping your child gain the skills required for future learning, successful participation in sport and improved confidence levels. Parents and caregivers also learn tools to help their children with day-to-day movement experiences and activities at home.
Head Start classes include:

  • Active movement to music
  • Activity stations focussed on building foundational skills for learning
  • Obstacle course to challenge gross motor skills, strength and balance
  • Fine motor tasks
  • Parachute and other finishing games

For session times and enrolment information check out or call Rata South on 03 4879698

You can also get regular helpful tips and information from the Head Start blog.

Head Start have also compiled all their resources and activity ideas in a comprehensive manual, which is available for community groups and early childhood providers to purchase.



Special thanks to Anna Baker and Mark Shirley from Head Start, for their help in preparing this article. Photos courtesy of Head Start.

Published 16 August, 2013



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