This article is an extract from our book, Games Children Sing and Play, pp 18-23, with CD, available at our Store.

We see the young child in nature, or at the playground, fully in motion.  He is exploring, running, climbing, swinging or sitting in the sand. He is rarely still, but if so, he is inwardly active in his sensing and imagination. All around him is space to interact with the world, to go in and out, over and under, around and through, here and there, and in his play he explores it all.

His movement is not random.  It is purposeful. In the first years of life, he gradually moves from unorganized movements that reflexively move towards the body to more intentional movements outward, drawn into the world to reach this, to go under that, to act out a story, move in free play, and imitate the movement gestures of others in the family and school community.

In these years of three to five, the young child is still connected by a shared but invisible organ of living forces to his mother or mother figures.  These living forces, sometime called “etheric” forces or the etheric body, enables the child to grow and thrive.  Gradually, by the age of six or seven, the child’s own life forces enable him to stand in his own individuality.    Joyful interactions, play and games together help foster the vitality of this bond and enable the normal progression of growing to unfold.

The early, or primitive, reflexes that we see in the first days and months are common to all newborn babies, and normally are “integrated” or allowed to go to sleep when more mature movement patterns are formed. Jane Swain explains, “The primitive reflexes are etheric pathways. They are akin to river beds in the space around the body. Initially the pathways are one-way streets, in towards the body. When the primitive reflexes are integrated, the pathways become two-way streets, coming in and going out.”⁠1  These two-way streets allow for healthy development of the child’s capacities for learning.

Ring-around-the-Rosie

Through his daily activities, free play and imaginative games, the developmental movement journey that each child takes in these early years creates numerous pathways for learning for his whole life, not only in the body but in the brain and social and learning community, too.

The Alliance for Childhood, an advocacy organization for a child’s right to play, reminds us that:

There was a time when children played from morning till night. They ran, jumped, played dress-up, and created endless stories out of their active imaginations.  Now, many scarcely play this way at all. What happened?

  • Over four and a half hours per day watching TV, video game, and computer screens;1
  • Academic pressure and testing, beginning with three-year-olds;
  • Over-scheduled lives full of adult-organized activities;
  • Loss of school recess and safe green space for outdoor play.

Decades of research clearly demonstrate that play— active and full of imagination—is more than just fun and games. It boosts healthy development across a broad spectrum of critical areas: intellectual, social, emotional, and physical. The benefits are so impressive that every day of childhood should be a day for play.

According to a research report for the U. S. Center for Disease Control  (CDC) released August, 2011, the rates of ADHD diagnosis in chidren have increased from 6.9% to over 9% over the previous decade.

Why is this happening more and more?  One answer is clear: children aren’t moving enough.  With children as young as 2 watching an average of four hours a day of “screen time”, those lost four hours would have helped provide lots of nourishing movements in the home and the yard or playground that will never come back again!

When Jane Healy was asked in an interview, “What about the decline of physical exercise? Isn’t that also part of [the increase in ADHD]?

“Yes, any occupational therapist could tell you that not getting exercise and body movement contributes to attention problems.”

Children of all ages need lots of healthy, meaningful movement.  By preschool age of 3 to 5, the U.S. National Association for Sport and Physical Education suggests the following guidelines:

  • At least 60 minutes a day, cumulative, on structured physical activities
  • At least 60 minutes a day (and up to several hours) on unstructured physical activities
  • No more than 60 minutes at a time engaged in sedentary activities, unless they are sleeping

If all children had the benefit of these recommended hours of free and structured play activities, just imagine what would happen to our obesity rates, our ADHD rates, and the healthy future of our children.

In her excellent book, “The Well Balanced Child, Sally Goddard Blythe offers that, in the first months and years, the child trains the primitive reflexes (0-6 months) and the postural reflexes (0-3.5 years) through actively engaging the senses in a variety of activities from feeding, listening, reaching, and gaining mastery of the body in different “planes of gravity” ⁠2(horizontal, vertical, this side and the “other” side.)

Once standing and walking, the child practices motor skills, postural control and balance by romping, exploring, climbing, running, rough-housing, playing with objects and play equipment (swings, slides, balls.)  Both sides of the brain are engaged for the older child (ages 4 +) in games that provide opportunities for spatial orientation (rolling, climbing, jumping, reaching up and down), sequencing (remembering verses and activities in order), and in listening (right brain) and repeating stories or songs (left brain.)⁠3

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Practical activities of the child’s home life also provide a rich environment for healthy and meaningful movement that can involve the entire family, even pets.  These might include:

  • Stirring the soup
  • Mixing the pancake batter
  • Squeezing out the washcloth
  • Washing dirty dishes
  • Putting away the groceries
  • Pouring bulk grains into storage bins or jars
  • Hand-grinding wheat
  • Drying the salad greens in a salad spinner
  • Emptying the garbage or compost
  • Sweeping the floor or steps
  • Wiping the counters and floor
  • Raking leaves
  • Digging in the garden
  • Planting in the garden
  • Watering plants with a watering can
  • Folding small cloths, napkins
  • Setting the table

Most children progress naturally and uneventfully through this normal developmental phase of growth with their orderly home-life, lively play and normal household activities.  More and more often, however, we see many children struggling in school and in life with developmental delays that are unrecognized.  Behaviors that are problematic in the classroom such as calling out, falling down, laying head on desks, sitting on one folded leg, constant motion or talking,  fussiness about food or clothing, or ADHD each may have their basis in hindered movement development.

The basic human senses of touch, vitality, proprioception , and balance (sometimes called the “lower” or early senses  within a concept of the twelve  senses)⁠ are nurtured, exercised and integrated through healthy, meaningful, and natural movements in the months and years of early childhood.

Carol Stock Kranowitz explains that, “Most people can name five senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Actually, we have several other vital senses.”  According to the research of A. Jean Ayres, O.T.R., PhD., who formulated the theory of SI [sensory integration], the fundamental sensory systems include:

  1. The tactile sense, which provides information primarily through the surface of the skin, from head to toe, about the texture, shape, and size of objects in the environment.  It tells us whether we are actively touching something or are being passively touched.  It helps us distinguish between threatening and non-threatening touch sensation.
  2. The vestibular sense,  which provides information through the inner ear about gravity and space, about balance and movement, and about our head and body position in relation to the surface of the earth.
  3. The proprioceptive sense. which provides information through our joints, muscles, and ligaments about where our body parts are and what they are doing.

These sensory systems, which are sometimes called the “hidden senses,” develop very early in the womb. They interact with vision and hearing, smelling and tasting, which develop slightly later.  As a result of typical sensory integration, self-control, self-esteem, motor skills, and high level cognitive functions can develop as Mother Nature planned.”5

In addition, there is the “life sense”, which provides information that life is good (or not) through qualities of warmth, rhythm, safety and loving relationships.  It is only when the sympathetic nervous system is relaxed do the full sense impressions deeply enter the body.⁠6  Now called “sensory integration” or sensory-motor integration, this process is essential for brain, body, and social development.

Pediatric occupational therapist Shari Carr works with young children in the public school in Connecticut.  In her experience, singing movement games help children organize their senses for life and learning in many ways. Throughout the day we use all of our senses to gather information about our environment and our interactions within that environment. However, some activities can help stimulate certain senses more strongly. Below are examples:

  • Games that rock, roll, change speed and direction offer vestibular input (sense of balance) that stimulate all attention centers in the brain, essential for learning in the classroom;
  • Games that involve a vertical change in head position such as jumping, hopping, or inverting the head to touch the toes or the floor help to stimulate the visual as well as the vestibular system and help ready the body for coordinating both large and fine motor movements with vision;Games that roll, crawl on tummy offer tactile stimulation (sense of touch) that help to build body awareness and awareness of movement in space (sense of self-movement or proprioception) by supplying deeper muscle and joint input;
  • Games that play with the movements of the hands and fingers (sense of touch, self-movement) offer fine motor skill development that prepares for manipulative skills such as handwriting, drawing, sewing, and moving small items around in the hands;
  • Games that invite full-body movements (senses of self-movement, balance, spatial orientation) helps develop awareness of the physical body, the space it occupies, and prepares for larger spatial awareness to develop;
  • Games that include doing and listening to rhythm (senses of touch, self-movement, hearing, sequencing) help to calm and organize the senses and help prepare for the sense of time and timing;
  • Games that include movements that go up, down, around, and circle left and right (senses of balance, self-movement, spatial orientation) stimulate directionality and knowing where one is in the world.

Creating An Imaginative Space

The children imitate not only our physical movements in work and play, but our habit gestures, mood and attitude, and the way we move in space as well.  When we lead the young child in movement, we want to be sure that our own gestures are as clear and clean as possible, without personally coloring them with our own habit gestures such as clenched hands, raised shoulders, or awkward sitting.  The child is imitating us not by following our physical gesture, but by sharing the same moving spaces between us.  These etheric pathways in and out, flowing between the adult and child, are powerful avenues for learning to learn.

Just how the adult creates the imaginative space is key.  Heather Chappellet Lanier, noted parenting and early childhood educator and Spacial Dynamics trainer, gives us some tips on creating the spacial substance the child will follow and imitate:

“”What I think makes all the difference is how the adult is able to live through their gestures and not have the gesture be physically, bodily oriented. For example, [in Little Chicks Come Out To Play], there’s an imagination of being in this sunny day as the little chicks come out to play. We have that feeling of coming out of a dark chicken coop into the expansiveness, of feeling drawn by the sun.  If that’s in the gestures, then the children are receiving the whole of what’s there rather than just the words and the physicality of the movement.”

“What’s most important is that the adult creates the space of the imagination around themselves: that they’re in that space, and they’re able to create that around the one child, two children, ten children, twenty children as well.  Even if you’re in a rainy, foggy day in London, the little chicks come out to play in the sunshine. The motions of the Caterpillar Crawls Along are being drawn up from the earth and back down with a real feeling of moist earth that would be nice and squishy to squish into, with grasses that would tickle the back as you go up. “

“Even those things obviously don’t really exist, the adult can create an imagination and the space around their gestures as they do them. Then the children both feel that and imitate it to the best of their ability.”

“It’s like when we tell a story in early childhood, we see the story as a living picture around us, more like a movie than words on a page or a picture in a book.  In order to remember a story, it’s very helpful to “see” those images unfolding in front of you like they were more like a movie that you are in, rather than words on a page. So, these are short stories, very short stories, a moment in time for a caterpillar or a rabbit or whatever that image is. You can still create the image of, “Where am I?”, and really hear the sounds that baby chicks make so that [the story] lives in the space around you and isn’t just taken by rote.”

As a new singing movement game is introduced, the child first listens and inwardly engages her imagination in the unfolding story.  Not only does she hear the tale, but she joins the story: she is the little bug rolling along, or the moon that is round.

Creating the Social Space

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Movement games are powerful experiences learning to get along with each other.  After a session of singing movement games with her 3 to 5 year olds at Neighborhood PlayGarden in San Francisco, preschool teacher Julie Fellom notices that “they have more respect for each other, of each other’s space.  They’re better at being together.  By repeating the gestures that include having boundaries with each other, waiting for a turn, and joining at the right time,  all this fosters social health.”

They also learn from each other, and “this is a powerful force for good in the group,” says Fellom.  “There is a great community feel to doing the movement games together.  They have time to learn, repeat, and practice new movements they might not know how to do.  About one-third of the children are kinaesthetic learners, and they often become the leaders in the game, and by their own movements they are teaching the others who imitate them and then look up to them.”

The benefits of learning and practicing singing movement games transfer into self-initiated movement later in free play.  For example, after the children learned rolling gymnastics on a flat mat while singing “Rolling Down the River” (p xx), Fellom found her students building an incline out of boards and pillows and rolling literally down the river on their own!  The movements are no longer just imitated, but become part of  a child’s movement repertoire, for life.

Games for Growing, for Learning and for Life

Whether in the lap of a parent, in free, self-directed play, or in a circle of preschool classmates, the games in this collection are games for growing.

For the three-year old child singing and playing with a beloved adult, story games will help provide a shared space of a warm and safe nest from which to explore the world.  For the four or five-year old in a small circle of a playgroup or preschool, these singing movement games offer nourishing story spaces for exploring all dynamics of movement, with physical, emotional, imaginative, and social skills important to growing, for learning and for life.

This article is an extract from Games Children Sing and Play, pp 18-23, available at our Store.

1 Swain, Jane. “Pickler, Point, and Periphery.    The Online Waldorf Library, Spring/Summer 2011,  Issue #60.
2 p 103 The Well Balanced Child
3 Ibid
4 Soesman, Albert. The Twelve Senses: how healthy senses refresh the soul.  Stroud: Hawthorn Press, 1990.
5 Kranowitz, Carol Stock. The Out of Sync Child Has Fun. p 3-4, c. 2003.
6 Soesman, Edward. The Twelve Senses
7 Conversation with Heather C. Lanier, Carmel, CA, May 5, 2012.

A Child’s Journey workshops and in-service teaching practice with Valerie continue in California and China. More info here.

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