Assuming there are no serious motor problems present, what can you, as an involved parent, do to help promote your child's motor development? To help ensure she becomes a competent, confident mover who enjoys and therefore takes part in physical activity? The answer is: Plenty!
Practice is one of the most important factors involved in achieving higher levels of skill performance. But one of the most important factors involved in practice is that it not feel like practice!
It's simple, really: All you have to do is play with your child. It should be noncompetitive play, with no pressure whatsoever, and your child should never guess you're trying to "improve" him.
Following are some other general tips to keep in mind:
* Keep the sessions short. It's better to have shorter, more frequent sessions than to wear your child out with a few that seem never-ending.
* Build on skills in a logical order (walking before running; jumping before hopping, etc.). Remember, too, that performing a skill in a stationary environment precedes performing it in a moving environment. An example is catching a ball tossed to oneself versus catching one hit by a bat.
* If you're using equipment (for instance, a bat and ball), be sure it's child-sized. Equipment meant for adults can seriously stack the odds against a child.
* Keep a progression in mind for equipment, too. For instance, if you're working on catching, start with something simple and nonthreatening that allows for maximum success, like a chiffon scarf. Then work your way up from there, perhaps with a balloon, followed by a small beach ball and then increasingly smaller (soft, easily grasped) balls.
* Children need to work on a skill as a whole before attempting its smaller parts. For example, a child needs to feel comfortable with a vertical jump as a whole before she can begin to concentrate on toe-ball-heel landings or the role her arms can play in achieving greater height.
* Be sure your child is dressed in clothing that allows for maximum movement and the possibility of dirtying.
* Whenever possible, demonstrate a skill yourself so your child has an opportunity to see what it should look like. Children need to employ as many senses in the learning process as possible.
Children also need feedback as they practice their motor skills ? and the most important thing you can remember is to keep it neutral and encouraging. We too often believe we need to tell children what they've done wrong ? so they can fix it. But if you do need to make corrections, keep the "sandwich" approach in mind. First, compliment the child on something she's done right. Then suggest a way to eliminate the error. Finally, end with something positive, even if it's to reiterate the first point.
To be truly helpful to a child, we must avoid "moralizing" with our feedback. A jump isn't "good" or "bad." A jump is either high or low, light or heavy. If we use the former descriptors ? or use such general terms as "good job," "good girl/boy," or "I liked that jump" ? we aren't really telling the child anything. He has no idea what was "good" about what he did. But if we describe what we've seen ("You landed very lightly from your jump, with your knees bent. That helps keep your knees from getting hurt."), we not only provide vocabulary for what he's done; we provide useful specifics as well.
Finally, when providing feedback, make sure you give it in small amounts. Young children can generally absorb only one bit of information at a time. So, if your child is practicing his long jump and you're instructing him to "swing your arms out and up and extend your knees and hips on takeoff; then bring your arms back down and bend your knees in preparation for landing," he'll likely miss most ? if not all ? of the information!
Rae Pica is a children's physical activity specialist and author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Rae speaks to parent and education groups throughout North America. To visit her and to read more articles, go to http://www.movingandlearning.com.