Playing comes naturally to children, be it games with friends or enjoying themselves on a slide, a swing, a merry-go-round or a trampoline at the neighbourhood park. They even find joy in merely running around. Though it is the happiness in these exertions that drives children to play, these physical activities also come with immense health benefits that keep them in good stead much later in life.
Early childhood physical activities
Early childhood is defined as the period from birth to eight years of age. This period is crucial for the growth and development of children. So, it is important that parents and educational institutions incorporate physical activities in the daily routines of children.
“Every child must get maximum opportunity to participate in physical activities,” says Mahesh Deshpande, associate professor at Chandrashekhar Agashe College of Physical Education, Pune, Maharashtra. “Parents, schools and society must create [the right] environment [and] provide facilities for children to participate in and enjoy physical activities. Since each child has different physical abilities, they must be provided with activities accordingly. Otherwise, there will be a negative effect and the child will dislike the physical activity and drop it.”
But care must be taken when involving a child in physical activities. The child should enjoy them and gain maximum benefits from them. Duration or amount of physical activity is key too.
According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the amount of physical activity for children should vary with age. If a child is aged between three and five years, then they should be active throughout the day. If the age is between six and 17, then they must be active for at least 60 minutes a day.
Enhancing physical fitness
Physical fitness is vital for leading a productive and happy life. It also helps in keeping obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at bay.
“Exercise starts at an early age, as early as from birth,” says Dr Sandeep Jathanna, a Bengaluru-based pediatrician. “It builds muscle memory and improves coordination. It keeps the weight in check. It also improves heart function and lung capacity. It helps in keeping the child calm by diverting energy.”
The immunity of the child gets a boost as well.
“It [physical activity] will improve their fitness, strengthen the bones and muscles, and reduce the risk of disease,” says Peer Ahmed, a coach at KidSportZ, Bengaluru. “It improves their immune system. Also, it improves the sleep pattern — the child can sleep soundly after playing or after being involved in sports. At the end, they will be physically fit and gain more energy.”
Motor skills development
Motor skills involve muscle movements while performing a specific task. Playing regularly helps the child develop motor skills which are important for the control and coordination of body movements.
There are two types of motor skills
- gross motor skills (involving control of the head, trunk, arms and legs)
- fine motor skills (involving the control of smaller muscles in the feet, toes, hands, fingers, tongue, etc.)
Gross motor development takes place during activities such as running at different speed limits, skipping ropes and climbing. Fine motor skills are developed while playing with clay, puzzles, painting, etc.
“Most physical activities will improve a child’s motor skills,” says Ahmed. “For example, if the child is trying to catch a ball, then his hands are moving. In other activities they hop, skip, walk and run. All this will help them develop their motor skills.”
The development of the brain along with cognitive skills occurs during early childhood. Cognitive skills are based on how the brain reads, learns, thinks, remembers, holds information, pays attention, reasons and solves problems.
“Memory in a child is like starting from a clean slate,” says Dr Jathanna. “There is a lot of storage space. You can receive and store information and respond faster. Group games are all about tactics. This helps [children] analyze and play to win games. The cognitive function applied in games creeps into other activities such as academics. Planning strategy for studies can be a part of having learnt strategy from group games.”
Physical activities provide an opportunity for children to improve the existing bond with parents/caretakers and form new bonds with friends.
Parental modelling is also important with respect to physical activities. When the child observes the parents being involved in physical activities, it has a positive effect, encouraging the child to take part actively.
Children learn to share, resolve fights and develop leadership qualities in playgrounds and parks. Mostly, they learn to work in a team and build friendships.
Better academic performance
Physical activities also lead to improved academic performance. Educators believe they help enhance concentration and attention among children.
“Physical activities definitely play a vital role in academics as they help children to concentrate on their classroom activity,” says Ahmed. “They learn to complete tasks in the classroom [and] to solve problems. Physical activity increases their memory power. They will be bold enough to give their ideas in class.”
Dr Jathanna says, “As you grow older, learning becomes difficult and requires a lot of effort. If you don’t have muscle mass or flexibility developed earlier, or you have become more obese, then it is more difficult to begin physical activities.”
Still, it is better late than never, and if you did not form the habit of being physically active as a child, you can start slowly — regardless of age.
- Early childhood, the period from birth to eight years, is crucial for the growth and development of the child.
- Parents and educational institutions must ensure the child engages in physical activities daily.
- Introducing physical activities in early childhood can enhance physical fitness, motor skills, cognitive and social development, and complement academics.
The role of play is indeed crucial for the holistic development of a child. I’m glad that I got to read such an article outside of a teacher education programme.
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