Perceptual Motor Efficiency

If you’ve read our mission statement, you might know that we are interested in Arts Education in and of itself and as a vehicle for child development, individual expression, community building and changing the world. Not a small endeavor, by any means.

Let’s begin with the most important part: why music and movement for preschoolers? If you’re like me, the answer is obvious, but you still want the stats to back it up.

We have come up with a simple explanation of what it is and why it’s important developmentally. To simplify, perceptual-motor efficiency is the means by which a child uses their body to get feedback from the world around them in order to develop motor skills, cognitive abilities and abstract thinking. Click here to read more about stages of cognitive development.

Basically this means that when children move, and make decisions about how they move, they form connections in their brains and bodies which last a lifetime.

Perceptual motor ability is defined for K-8 students by national and state education agencies as having certain abilities such as hopping on one foot, catching a ball, or turning around without falling (unless, of course, the fall is on purpose).

At this time there are no national standards for early childhood education, but existing standards can be applied to preschoolers by using the lens of appropriate application for their age group. (And the NAEYC is working on national standards, as well.)

One way that you can gage whether your toddlers are on track developmentally is through the use of the ASQ developed by early childhood educators at the University of Oregon.

So what about children who cannot perform certain tasks? Does this mean that their cognitive abilities will be limited? Not necessarily. One reason for diagnosing physical challenges early is that many children can catch up to their peers by being given different exercises to help them develop those aspects.

If they cannot because of some physical challenge, they can be given special exercises that are thought to create the same effect as the ones we use for the typically developing child. For example a child in a wheel chair cannot hop on one foot but may be able to perform a series of balance and weight-shifting challenges that do not necessitate the ability to stand.

For the child who is developing at a similar rate to their peers, it is important to practice these skills as much as possible. I used the following analogy lately, and I hope it helps you to relate to what your child is trying to do.

My children both went through a period of time where they could not sit down once they stood up in their cribs. During the day this was not a big problem, but at night it was at best irritating and at worst disastrous. I thought that maybe they had entered into a stage of being that would drive me crazy. Every night I would hear a scream of frustration that would not subside until I would go in and bend their little knees so they could sit down again. Ten minutes later, another scream of frustration.

I went to babycenter.com, I asked my pediatrician, I asked friends and family what to do. I’m not sure where I got the information from (little short-term memory from that period) but someone told me (or I may have read—I love the ages and stages book by T. Berry Brazelton and I may have gotten it from there) that the best way to get them through that stage, and get back to sleep, was to help them practice those skills during the day.

For the next couple of days we practiced getting up and sitting down with vigor. We played bounce games and mommy did funny demonstrations that cracked them up. By the second night they were sleeping through again. Or, more likely, they were waking up and able to get themselves to stand and sit without assistance so didn’t need to scream for help.

Research, reading, observation and many years of teaching have shown me that many major stages of physio-cognitive development are like this. When a child is trying to do something new, with either their brains or their bodies, there can be sleep disruptions, behavior problems and other manifestations of their frustration. We can help direct this frustration positively by giving them every opportunity to work out their tasks in ways that give them a sense of mastery.

We do this by giving children lots of time to play and run around outside. We do it by giving them adult-directed activities that we know, either instinctually or because of research, help them to develop the skills that they need to in order to get to the next stage of development. We do it by giving them time and room to play—which is the most important work they do right now.

By giving children the opportunity to practice their skills in these ways we help them use their frustration to their best advantage–to build skills, rather than creating obstacles. We can give them, and ourselves, the gift of creative partnerships with adults, rather than discord because of acting out or trying to control. And ultimately we create a model for children that tells them that frustration, and the way that we use it, can help build us into stronger, smarter and happier human beings.

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