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Progress And Motion

If you’re wondering why your kids won’t pay attention, it might be because they don’t get enough movement.

Most parents spend a lot of time wondering why their kids won’t listen. Are they doing it deliberately? Do they need their hearing checked? What’s going on with kids these days? As a mama to five, I do my fair share of struggling to get my children to listen.

Since my youngest was born, I’ve also been thrown into the world of physical and occupational therapy. My mind has been absolutely blown by the intricate relationship between children’s opportunity for movement and their behavior. Our modern parenting styles might be interfering with our children getting the level of movement they need to develop the ability to concentrate and listen to directions.

As a child who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I spent quite a bit of time outside. I enjoyed hours of self-directed play and exploring the outdoors. Apart from parents pointing out when something was legitimately dangerous, safety on the playground wasn’t a major concern.

Today, things are very different.

My youngest child was born at 31 weeks and had a congenital birth defect that required surgery. In her early months she was quite docile, and had a fairly significant motor delay. Despite her motor difficulties, I made a point not only of allowing her to take risks, but encouraging her to do so. Why? Because without big movement, kids can’t properly develop their proprioceptive and vestibular senses, which are vital to concentration and learning.

Experiencing a motor delay—just in the first nine months of her life—affected my daughter’s vestibular and proprioceptive systems. Fortunately, therapy is a massive help, and we’re working on overcoming the difficulties.

The very interesting thing, however, is that movement doesn’t just affect these systems in children with motor delays. Most children in modern westernized cultures are deprived of adequate time for big motor play and discouraged from taking risks.

My daughter wears a cranial helmet, because of a congenital misshapen skull, and because she is prone to stumbling. I still encourage her to take as many risks as she can on the playground, which brings quite a few stares and comments.

“Is she okay? She’s up quite high.”

“How old is she? My 2-year-old can’t even get up there.”

And then, when their 2-year-old follows my child, parents find themselves surprised by their child’s capability… but also apprehensive, because their child is now taking a risk.

When we don’t allow children to climb, swing, and jump and run about on uneven surfaces (such as rocks, sand, mulch, or grass), we prevent them from learning about their own bodies. Unless their proprioception and vestibular systems can mature, their bodies become a distraction. They can’t focus in the classroom, sit still at the dinner table, or stop jumping on grandma’s couch—all because their bodies are too distracting.

The Proprioceptive and Vestibular Systems

Before my daughter was born, all I really knew about the vestibular system was it had something to do with balance. Now that I have older children, and one toddler with a motor delay, I’m wondering why it and the proprioceptive system aren’t mentioned more often to new parents.

Proprioception is what tells you where your body is, without you having to look at each body part. For example, right now I’m typing but I’m looking at the screen, not at my hands. Proprioception allows you to move from the gas pedal to the brake without looking at your feet. It allows you to walk through a doorway without bumping into the walls.

Improperly developed proprioception can lead to children being extra rough with their friends without realizing it. It’s often seen in kids who trip more often than their peers. Do you have a child who constantly wriggles at his desk and falls out of his seat? It could be related to proprioception.

Vestibular sense is located in the inner ear; it’s responsible for balance, and knowing how our body is in motion. It’s similar to proprioception, and works in tandem with it.

Why is big motor play important? It helps children learn how their bodies move, how gravity works, and how to take appropriate risks.

The human body is quite amazing. When a child has an underdeveloped proprioceptive or vestibular sense, the urge to move is even greater. The developing body knows what it needs: movement. The child who seems to be bouncing off the walls isn’t trying to drive you crazy; his body is insisting on getting the movement it requires.

The best time to develop these senses is during the first six years of life. Children who don’t get enough big movement during that time are less likely to be able to listen and focus, because they’re distracted by their own bodies. For them, getting dressed might involve feeling the seams of their clothing in an intense way. Sitting down to do homework can feel torturous because they’re unable to focus while their body is squirming in a chair.

When my son was around 20 months old, I became pregnant and experienced hyperemesis gravidarum. While I was dealing with that, his screen time increased, and his time outside decreased. We’ve worked hard to get him outdoors and active, but so far he’s the only one of my children who has struggled to sit still and focus during class. I realize his situation is purely anecdotal, but it suggests that those few months in which he had less opportunity for big motor play had a lasting impact.

Getting Enough Big Motor Play

Because of the childhood obesity epidemic, many public service campaigns have surfaced. A popular one recommends a minimum of 60 minutes of big motor play per day. And even though any movement is better than no movement, experts recommend quite a bit more.

Although these recommendations involve a lot of hours, here’s what pediatric occupational therapist Angela J. Hanscom suggests for optimal development:

  • Infants should have at least 90 minutes of tummy time per day

  • Toddlers should have 5 to 8 hours of big play, preferably outdoors as much as possible

  • Preschoolers also need 5 to 8 hours, and ideally lots of outside time

  • Elementary-age children should have 4 to 5 hours of physical activity, including plenty of time outside

  • Adolescents need 3 to 4 hours of physical activity per day, and outdoor time is still beneficial

Big movement is vital for our children’s developing bodies. If we want our children to be able to focus, do well in school, and listen to us, we must help them meet their bodies’ need for physical movement.

Even if you can’t fit five hours in, do your best to give them as much activity as possible. Sometimes adapting your rules can help. If a three-hour trip to the park isn’t possible, perhaps you might allow children to slide down the stair rail or bounce on the couch to get extra movement in.

My daughter had a big vestibular setback during the winter when we spent more time indoors. We eventually purchased a small trampoline and an indoor swing to help us get more physical activity, regardless of the weather.

And although we got these things for our toddler, the older boys have also benefited. If they do a little bouncing while I prepare dinner, they’re more cooperative sitting down at dinner time.

Activities That Help

Hearing that your toddler needs five hours of physical activity might sound daunting, but it’s fairly simple to get toddlers moving. Their little bodies don’t need much room for big play.

With older kids, it can take a bit more effort and coaxing. Limiting screen time is a vital part of ensuring older children get enough activity. Considering the long hours they spend at school, it can seem impossible. However, improving their activity is manageable…and even if you don’t manage four hours, any bit of activity helps. Children with typical neurological development need only limited guidance. Children naturally seek out the sensory input their bodies need. Even so, our sedentary lifestyles and screen time can interfere with children taking the opportunity to listen to their bodies’ needs.

Activities that help proprioception and vestibular sense include:

  • Twirling

  • Rolling/tumbles/somersaults

  • Swinging

  • Climbing trees

  • Pulling toys and wagons, or pushing a wheelbarrow

  • Swimming

  • Roller skating

  • Wheelbarrow walking

  • Dancing

  • Walking backward

  • Climbing on playground equipment

  • Playing on monkey bars

  • Dancing

  • Playing in dirt, sand, and rocks

  • Jumping on a trampoline

  • Building a fort

  • Walking on a balance beam

When you’re unsure of what to do, simply provide space for them to climb, explore the outdoors, and take age appropriate risks.

Yes, climbing has risks. But as we’re now learning, not climbing has dangers of its own. Our children need to take risks to develop age-appropriate listening and concentration skills. If we don’t allow children to have big motor play and learn risk assessment now, it can affect their education later. A bump and a bruise in toddlerhood might very well be worth it, if it makes for an easier time in school in later years.

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