More play time needed on journey in learning

Child development expert says movement is essential for kids to develop skills for life

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Ms Connell believes children learn through play, new experience and creativity. Her Smart Steps programme integrates numeracy, literacy and language learning with physical play.
Ms Connell believes children learn through play, new experience and creativity. Her Smart Steps programme integrates numeracy, literacy and language learning with physical play. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Children today are not getting as much play time as their parents did - and this is affecting their foundational development.

Child development expert Gill Connell, 58, who was in Singapore last week, said movement was essential for children to develop foundational skills for school and life.

The New Zealand consultant and author of four books has worked with government body Sports New Zealand, schools in different countries and toy firm Hasbro, and believes in learning through play.

But children in general, including in Ms Connell's area of focus - those aged seven and younger - are less active compared with those in previous generations because parents fall into the trap of being overprotective or too prescriptive.

They may do things for their children, such as carrying them even when they can walk or disallowing play in the park or playground for fear of injury, making them miss out on experiences that would stimulate them in growing physically as well as mentally, in developing traits such as independence, courage and resilience.

Ms Connell said: "I am concerned that childhood is disappearing."

  • Tips for parents

  • Observing a child's behaviour can offer clues to aspects of his physical development, said Ms Gill Connell. For instance:

    • Children who fidget may not have good balance - keeping still requires an advanced sense of balance. They may need to do more activities to help their balance, such as rolling or hanging upside down.

    • Children who push their friends while hugging them may not be able to adjust their strength. To better control their muscles, they can do activities such as pouring water from one cup to another .

    • Children who appear clumsy and often trip over things, for instance, may not be able to relate well to the space around them. They may need to take part in more activities such as crawling through tunnels to see how their bodies relate to spaces and objects. Examples of activities parents can do at home with their children can be found on Ms Connell's blog at movingsmartblog.

The avid lover of the outdoors, who enjoys activities such as hiking, mountain biking and fishing, said of her childhood: "I was brought up like that. I used to go fishing with my dad. From age three, he used to take me on overnight fishing experiences. He would say, hold my fishing line, and I would wind in a fish for him."

Ms Connell said of children: "They are right-brain thinkers, they learn through play, new experience, creativity. It's not about the answer, it's about the journey."

Movement from natural play helps children develop their muscles. For instance, actions such as hanging from monkey bars help children develop the muscles for holding a pencil or controlling it to properly form letters, Ms Connell said.

"Kids are wired to do these things: pulling themselves along, gripping, pushing and pulling... that's the beginning of the pencil grip but (people) don't make that connection."

She believes that children's behaviour, combined with an understanding of the child and his circumstances, sends messages about the areas of development they may need.

For instance, a well-rested child who frequently blinks or rubs his eyes may need to develop his visual acuity. To do that, parents or educators can help by getting the child to play games, such as catching a feather in a cup.

At age 18, Ms Connell started teaching, going on to teach children aged five and below, including in music and movement. In 1999, when she was 40, she started her consultancy Moving Smart. She hopes to change mindsets with her Smart Steps programme - a pre-school programme integrating numeracy, literacy and language learning with physical play.

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The programme will be used at the Australian International School's and Stamford American International School's joint Early Learning Village for children aged 18 months to six years, which will open from July.

While there are other experts of the play-based approach, Ms Connell believes her strength lies in being a "storyteller" - articulating the link between play and how it develops the brain and the body, and sharing anecdotes to make it real for people.

Having raised three daughters, now aged 29, 33 and 35, Ms Connell said she understood the anxiety of parents wanting their children to meet their pre-set ideas of developmental milestones but advised against interfering with nature.

These include trying to get their child to walk when he has not yet learnt to crawl or has not spent enough time crawling to develop his muscles and reflexes, or putting the child in a walker, which is not a natural position.

Her advice for parents is to provide children with sensory experiences and play with them without taking over how they choose to play. Parents should also ask questions that would evoke their child's curiosity, instead of asking questions with right-or-wrong answers.

For instance, ask "What do you think will happen if we did this?", instead of "What's this?"

Said Ms Connell: "Don't try to teach them (children) all the time. Let them invite you into play."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline More play time needed on journey in learning. Subscribe