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Children and Exercise: Why Parents Should Demand a Perceptual-Motor Program at School

I experienced the innumerable benefits of a perceptual-motor program as both a student and a teacher. I urge parents to demand its return.

Today, because of too much screen time, many children enter school with poor gross motor skills. Now, more than ever, parents should demand the return of perceptual-motor programs.

Today, because of too much screen time, many children enter school with poor gross motor skills. Now, more than ever, parents should demand the return of perceptual-motor programs.

What is a Perceptual-Motor Program?

A perceptual-motor program is a movement class for youngsters in the early elementary school years, typically grades K-2. However, it's also highly suitable for preschools and day care centers. It's typically run by a physical education instructor or a classroom teacher and is conducted once or twice a week with the help of parent volunteers. Its aim is to improve the children's fitness, balance, hand-eye coordination, gross motor skills, and self-confidence. The program also seeks to build an understanding of spatial concepts such as in, on, under, over, through, behind, in front of, and between.

What Are Gross Motor Skills?

Gross motor skills involve the use of large muscles in our bodies such as our torso, arms, and legs. Kids at school use them when doing everyday activities such as running, skipping, climbing, and jumping. They use them when throwing and catching a ball, going up and down stairs, pumping on a swing, and riding a bicycle. Strong gross motor skills are critical for the healthy development of children—physically, emotionally, and cognitively—and build their self-confidence. One of the main goals of a perceptual-motor program is promoting gross motor development.

Why Are Perceptual-Motor Programs Especially Vital Today?

For their sons and daughters to succeed in today’s highly competitive, fast-paced, high-tech world, many parents believe that accelerated learning is a must. Therefore, our schools now thrust academics upon children at younger and younger ages. As a result, kids at school sit more and move less. At home, they’re more likely to remain indoors, watching screens, rather than adventuring outside to climb, run, jump, chase, dig, and swing like previous generations did.

Kids are negatively impacted by their sedentary lifestyles. They're more likely to struggle from depression and anxiety. They're also more likely to suffer from health problems brought on by obesity such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Moreover, their sedentary lifestyles have created unprecedented difficulties for them with gross motor skills. This, in turn, leads to them experiencing greater feelings of frustration, embarrassment, and inadequacy.

When a youngster grapples with doing basic feats such as running across the playground, skipping jump rope, throwing a baseball, or climbing a tree, their self-esteem takes a major hit. Conversely, when they perform them with grace, they feel empowered and eager to take on new challenges. A perceptual-motor program at their elementary schools, therefore, is a vital solution for enhancing their gross motor skills while simultaneously boosting their self-confidence.

This video shows a perceptual-motor program in action with the usual equipment: jump ropes, tunnels, a balance beam, mats, hula hoops, and mini trampolines.

How Does It Benefit Kids Physically, Cognitively, and Emotionally?

In pushing early academics, we’ve prioritized sedentary activities at school and at home such as writing in workbooks, playing learning games on laptops, and listening to teacher lectures. In doing so, we’re ignoring the overwhelming body of research that shows physical activity enhances children’s cognitive and emotional development, not just their fitness. With this profuse evidence, we should feel confident in knowing that youngsters benefit from a perceptual-motor program in all areas: body, mind, and soul.

  • Research shows that children with adequate perceptual-motor skills have more self-confidence, greater body awareness, and improved coordination.
  • Physical activity builds neural pathways—the connections by which information travels through the brain. A youngster whose brain has more neural pathways will learn more easily.
  • Perceptual-motor programs strengthen bilateral coordination—the ability to coordinate both sides of the body at the same time in an organized way. Bilateral coordination is a necessary skill at school. Students write their names with one hand while stabilizing the paper with the other. They hold scissors in one hand while turning the paper with the other. They guide a pencil with one hand while keeping a ruler steady with the other.
  • All communication skills—speaking, reading, writing, and gesturing—are motor based.
  • New research in education and psychology shows a close relationship between a child's perception (ability to process what he takes in through his senses) and his motor (movement) skills.

Why Did Perceptual-Motor Programs Vanish?

In the world of education, the baby often gets thrown out with the bathwater. Sadly, this was the case with perceptual-motor programs, even though they were cherished by kids, teachers, and parents alike. Today, it’s nearly impossible to find an adult who participated in one as a child and doesn’t look back on it with fondness and enthusiasm.

So why did this beloved program that promoted physical fitness, gross motor skills, balance, coordination, and self-confidence get eradicated? Predictably, it was phased out during a period when politicians and the public were demanding higher scores on standardized tests, resulting in more academic minutes, more student assessments, and more nation-wide standards such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core. During this time, we saw play in kindergarten become devalued and recess time get decreased and, in some places, even eliminated.

Perceptual-motor programs were victims of this push for academic rigor. They gradually faded away as school administrators decided that they weren’t worth the cost of purchasing and maintaining the equipment. Primary teachers, now overwhelmed with classroom standards and student assessments, no longer had the time nor the energy to organize parent volunteers to help run them. Moreover, a new crop of young teachers, who grew up without them, had never been educated about perceptual-motor programs and their innumerable benefits.

The activities that children do during a perceptual-motor program help them with their academic work.

The activities that children do during a perceptual-motor program help them with their academic work.

What Does Crossing the Midline Mean?

Occupational therapists often talk about the importance of “crossing the midline” when working with their young clients. This refers to an imaginary line being drawn from the head to the feet, separating the left and right halves of the body. When a child crosses the midline, they use a body part—their hand or their foot—to spontaneously and effortlessly move over to the other side of the body to work there.

A youngster who can competently cross the midline is displaying a crucial developmental skill. It’s necessary for kids to feel confident at school doing activities such as handwriting. It’s also required for kids to feel self-assured when doing physical feats on sports teams such as hitting a baseball with a bat. At home, it’s essential for children to feel capable when performing everyday tasks such as putting on their shoes and socks.While some youngsters acquire this skill with little effort, others need help, practice, and repetition. A perceptual-motor program is a fun and effective way to give them just that.


How Can a Perceptual-Motor Program Help Kids Cross the Midline?

A child's inability to cross the midline may indicate a cognitive or physical issue that requires remediation. Cognitively, it may signal that the left and right hemispheres of a youngster’s brain aren’t communicating effectively with one another. Therefore, the child may need to work with an occupational therapist one-on-one to address this issue.

Physically, it may signal that a youngster is not developing hand dominance, a preference for using the left or right hand. When a child avoids crossing the midline, they’re giving each hand an equal amount of practice and, thus, hand hand dominance gets delayed. This adversely impacts their fine motor skills. Handwriting, for instance, becomes grueling as the youngster struggles with crossing over to the left or right side of the paper with their pencil. It may also cause reading to be frustrating as the youngster grapples with tracking words on the page from left to right.

A perceptual-motor program includes many activities that give children practice at crossing the midline. They include, for example, maneuvers such as reaching for balls or beanbags across their bodies and then throwing them at a target. They also include exercises that involve crossing one foot over the other while walking sideways or touching a right elbow to a left knee and vice versa. An enlightened teacher can spot problems and refer a youngster for special help, staving off bigger troubles in the future.

Questions & Answers

Question: I haven't heard about perceptual motor programs for years but remember them fondly from my childhood. How can I get one going at my kids' elementary school?

Answer: Starting a perceptual-motor program at your children's elementary school would be a great benefit for the youngsters, and I commend your willingness to spearhead it. You could start small in kindergarten and, if it's a grand success, expand it to include all the primary grades. My advice would be to get the PTA behind you after first getting a green light from the principal (if you don't have her approval, there's no use in wasting your time).

You can convince the principal by assuring her that parent volunteers (not the already over-worked teachers) will run the program and purchase the necessary equipment. You should also discuss with her whether the program will be part of the regular P.E. program or something separate. If she wants it to be part of the P.E. program, you'll need to work with the P.E. teacher.

Most elementary schools did away with perceptual-motor programs because they didn't have enough parent volunteers to run them. When I participated in the program as a kid, it was run completely by five moms who set up the equipment and ran each station. The teachers were 100% on board with it because it gave them a period to work in their classrooms, make copies, return parent phone calls, and write lesson plans.

When I taught kindergarten at an inner-city elementary school, the other kindergarten teacher and I ran the perceptual-motor program by ourselves with the help of our teaching assistant. It was difficult because we had to set up the equipment before school started and take it down while the kids sat patiently on the bleachers. We could only have three stations so the kids had to wait for their turn. It wasn't ideal, but it worked. Teachers today, though, are under more pressure with testing, assessments, and Common Core standards so I doubt they would be willing to take on a perceptual-motor program.

I imagine some younger teachers have never heard of perceptual-motor programs and would be keen to learn more. With children watching 7+ hours of screens each day, perceptual-motor programs are critical for developing balance, coordination, gross motor skill, and the body-brain connection. Good luck!

Question: How can I get trained to run a perceptual-motor program? Are there courses available for pmp?

Answer: I'm so glad that you're eager to start a perceptual-motor program (aka pmp). Unfortunately, pmp's are no longer popular here in the US (hopefully, they'll make a comeback soon) so I'm unaware of any courses that are currently offered. In fact, it might be hard to even find an elementary school in your area that has a pmp so you can see it in action. However, there are several videos on YouTube that can give you an overall sense of it.

http://www.frontrowexperience.com/ is the online source for pmp materials. The books by Jack Capon (Perceptual-Motor Lesson Plans Level 1 Preschool to First Grade or perceptual-motor Lesson Plans Level 2 2nd and 3rd Grades) are what you need to get started, depending on the age group. Capon explains the sequence of activities, the room set-up, the equipment required, and the use of volunteers. He includes activity cards for each week's lessons.

Another online source for pmp information and materials is a company in New Zealand https://www.movingsmart.co.nz/ They have helpful videos there and lots of information on the benefits of a pmp.

Sadly, a pmp is difficult for some schools to implement because it relies heavily on parent volunteers to run the stations. However, if you're fortunate to have parent helpers at your school, it's a fabulous way to use them. They really love it, feel needed, and become quite dedicated. I once had a volunteer who was a pediatric occupational therapist and she was an amazing resource. In fact, she was so impressed by the pmp that she wound up practically running the entire thing.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers

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