By Laura Znajda, PT, C/NDT
Manager of Community Based Therapy and Continuing Education
Summer is the ideal time for outdoor play, and children who love to run and climb are in their element. But children with very mild developmental challenges– or even no diagnosed problem at all— can have a great deal of difficulty learning new motor skills and keeping up with their peers on the playground. Some children are mistakenly thought to be “clumsy” or “lazy” when they don’t try the advanced motor skills other children their age are mastering.
Physical and occupational therapists sometimes receive referrals to work with these children to strengthen their bodies so that they can gain skills more easily and keep up with their peers. However, there is more to motor skills than just strength. Pediatric therapists must analyze a child’s performance and consider all factors that might be impacting their success:
Flexibility: We all need normal range of motion in our joints to perform daily tasks, but outdoor play can require extreme ranges of movement as kids stretch their limbs to make that great play of the game or to access new parts of a play gym. A restriction in range of motion at the hip or shoulder might make climbing the slide ladder difficult. A neck range limitation could make it challenging for a child to scan the playing field for a teammate that is open for a pass.
Motor Planning: Paraphrased from Jean Ayres, PhD, motor planning is defined as the act of planning movements inside the brain to complete a series of actions in the proper sequence. Before a child even starts to move, the sequence of action is planned out in the brain. When the child lacks experience with a particular skill, like pumping herself on a swing or hitting a ball with a bat, she might hesitate in order to give her brain time to make a plan for this novel task. Typically, the time it takes to get started will decrease as the task becomes more familiar, but for some children this motor planning component does not come naturally and needs assistance.
Balance: Children need to be able to balance on one leg long enough to lift the other leg to a raised surface or to kick a ball. Even more importantly, they need dynamic balance—that is, control of their bodies while they are moving and balanced on one limb in order to reach out to the side to catch a baseball or make a soccer save. A child with balance difficulties will seek out stable objects to hold when he has to lift a foot for any length of time or will avoid these activities altogether.
Coordination: According to CanChild, a research center at McMaster University that organizes clinical research concerning children with developmental conditions, coordination is a sequence of muscular actions or body movements occurring in a purposeful, orderly fashion (smooth and efficient). We often think of coordination as the ability to use both sides of the body at the same time. We need coordination to make the same movements with both arms and legs when we do exercises like jumping jacks. And we need coordination to do different things with each body part, but all at the same time, such as dribbling a basketball while walking or running. A child with coordination difficulties might need these advanced motor skills to be taught in a more graded manner before she can master them.
Motivation: It might seem obvious that a child must be interested and motivated in an activity in order to be successful with it, however this important component of motor skill performance is sometimes overlooked. Although research is inconclusive as to exactly how many repetitions are needed, we do know that a new skill requires at least hundreds of repetitions in order to become proficient. If a child is not motivated to play a particular sport, he will not have the determination to practice a skill over and over and will not see the success that comes from that critical repetition.
Finally, strength is important. Just as necessary as all of these motor skill components; but not the only factor to consider when a child is hesitant or unsuccessful with outdoor play.
Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley therapists are expanding their ability to get to the bottom of why children don’t participate in outdoor play and develop new strategies to help them through a continuing education course taught by Lezlie Adler, OTR/L, C/NDT and Jane Styer-Acevedo, PT, DPT, C/NDT on September 22-23, 2016 at our Villa Park center. Registration is open to all therapists at: http://www.eastersealsdfvr.org/ce
Can Child, Institute for Applied Health Sciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 1C7 www.canchild.ca
Ayres, A. Jean, Sensory Integration and the Child, Western Psychological Services, 2005.