It sometimes feels as if there is a battleground between adults and small children around the body and movement.
Children want and need to be on the move - it’s key to development. But we adults, who are genuinely concerned with their physical development, often feel we have to stop them. ‘Sit still’, ‘Stand still’, ‘Get up off the floor’, ‘Stop wriggling’, ‘Don’t lean against / fiddle with the person next to you’, ‘Sit nicely’, ’No running in the corridor’. These familiar cries ring through our childhoods and possibly through our working lives as well.
Think back to being a child yourself and it is easy to remember the frustration that accompanied these words. But now we are the adults it’s easy to come up with many reasons why we use them so often - why we shut down children’s movement.
I’m thinking back to primary school and a particular battleground. Do you remember the journey to the hall for PE lessons? It usually went something like this. PE kit on, hoppy, skippy journey through the school and a line created at the closed hall door. Then the teacher’s voice would soar above the mounting hub bub.
“Um! Settle down children!
When I open the door I want you to WALK (extra shrill tone here) into the hall. FIND A SPACE (mounting excitement; mounting desperation) and SIT DOWN NOT TOUCHING ANYONE ELSE!”
This last instruction was always delivered in a tone that instantly suggested, to even the smallest child, that the teacher knew they were on a hiding to nothing.
It’s a long time since I was at primary school, but I suspect not much has changed.
Across the country, the hall doors open and the children start to walk, then jostle-walk into the large, huge, airy, shiny, sleek, smooth-floored, o-so-inviting space. These children know what they have to do. Walk. Find a space. Sit down. They try - they really try.
Then the loveliness of the space calls to the animal in them.
They break into a trot, a gallop, one falls to his knees and slides across that slippery surface. Arms fly out. Another starts turning on the spot, quicker, quicker until it is a full-blown whizzing spin. It is contagious; others join. But the instruction remains - find a space and sit down. The children reluctantly sit ... and spin. Little heaps of children sit folded around one another - twisting, spinning - but doing as the teacher asked. Sitting.
Poor teacher. Poor children. Our sedentary culture sets them one against the other in a hopeless, unhelpful battle.
The developing human animal is biologically programmed to get what it needs. We are programmed to interact with our environment in useful ways. Thus a low brick wall invites us to walk along it; a tree (or a chair, or an adult’s body) suggests we climb or hang off it; a large open space invites us to run. These aren’t decisions they’re instincts, imperatives - because we must run and climb and spin and roll to grow the body systems we need for all that life asks of us in future. These instincts come before any fancy intellectual or social skills. They underpin them and our bodies know it.
In the rough and tumble, run, spin, tip and roll of movement play we grow the foundations for our health, our wellbeing and our capacity to learn things.
The more complicated our culture, the more demands it makes on our body systems. The more demands on our body systems, the more we need to grow them well from the start.
Increasingly, for reasons we understand, children arrive in nursery or school having not had the rough and tumble, running, rumbustuous body experiences that their developing bodies need. If we do not provide them, these children risk being in deficit all their lives.
But our culture prizes intellectual skills over physical instincts. And so we constantly try and override the inbuilt instinct to be a body in the name of ‘ordered learning environments’ and acquisition of intellectual skills. We seek to tame the body, contain it, use it like a sort of vehicle to carry us quietly to the more important things in our lives. And in so doing, we miss the obvious.
Children move and move and move for very good reasons. The galloping, running, spinning children in the gym know how to use the stimulus around them to get what they need. Forget the PE curriculum and the poor teacher, they have nature’s curriculum in their blood and bones. They want to do what we say, but their first allegiance is to the inner voice that urges movement, more movement.
We would do well to listen to this voice. As we worry about how to get children to be more active, we need to notice how often we suggest the opposite, quelling the very instincts that nature gave us to ensure we set out on the right path.
Here’s a great comment from a Year 1 teacher who came to a course we ran at JABADAO about supporting children’s learning through movement. She was reticent at first, very anxious about the chaos that she was sure would ensue if she supported child-led movement play. At the end, after a year of developing her own way of balancing the demands of the school culture with the physical desires of the children, she said this. “I might not be doing all that you would hope with my children, but I am doing this. When I open the door of the gym I no longer say, “Find a space and sit down on your own”. I say: “Find a space and SPIN!”