Wellbeing is a complex concept, but we all intuitively value and understand it and want it for our children. We know it makes a huge difference to every aspect of life. As Ferre Lavers1 puts it, a child with high levels of wellbeing is a fish in water. A child with low levels of wellbeing is a fish out of water.
Let’s dive deeper.
Fish in water feel at ease with their life. They have ease, vitality, adaptability and spontaneity in their physicality - which lies at the centre of everything.
Many factors that affect wellbeing are external: the environment around us, the experiences we have, the nature of our interactions with the significant people in our lives. But wellbeing is also massively determined by how we feel inside our body.
Put simply, to feel high levels of wellbeing our body has to be our friend.
If it isn’t, there is a constant drain on our wellbeing and no amount of strategising, thinking and planning can compensate for that basic missing foundation.
Making our body our friend, therefore, is an important core for any physical development curriculum. It’s certainly what children are trying to do for themselves.
The physical components of wellbeing
For high levels of wellbeing bodies need to feel:
physically comfortable, settled, capable (I can do that) and recognised
If we feel:
physically uncomfortable, unsettled, cautious (I don’t know if I can do that) and unrecognised then our body probably won’t feel like an enabling friend
Physical comfort comes from two things:
being well aligned: developing a body that uses the bones, muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue in the most efficient way possible.
the ability to readily process sensations our body: our bodies are constantly alive with sensation, vital body signals that keep us on track in lots of different ways - co-ordinating our movement (fast and slow, in empty or crowded spaces); knowing where our body begins and ends, prompting us to eat, sleep or wee; knowing what is safe or damaging for our body. So much information all at once that needs to feel useful and manageable
If this information stays in the foreground - each stream shouting loudly for attention - it creates a noisy, inner clamour that is confusing and exhausting; far from comfortable. We need that sensory processing to happen in the background, without pulling our present attention in lots of different directions at once.
For instance, as you read this, if you constantly have to attend to the feel of your shoes on your feet, or how to balance your body as you tilt your head, or how much force to use to manipulate the objects around you, you will feel less comfortable than if these things happen seamlessly in the background.
The day you have a new filling in a tooth, you probably find it hard not to keep rolling your tongue round and round until it eventually becomes a familiar part of you.
We are hardwired to create a familiar sense of our body as an underpinning for everything we do. But new sensation that starts in the foreground needs soon to slip into the background, leaving room for attention to go elsewhere. It is an important part of our wellbeing.
If the sensations in a child’s body feel new and unfamiliar every time they pick up a pencil, or run across the grass, or their friend hugs them, they will be compelled to put attention into the feelings in their body separately from the experience itself. At the very least this is distracting, but it’s also unsettling and exhausting.
For our wellbeing, we need a settled, familiar and consistent sense of our body. And it's not a given - it requires developmental work.
Having an underlying sense that we can do the things that are expected of us, and we expect of ourselves, sits squarely under our wellbeing.
At a body level this means:
feeling grounded and balanced
feeling that we can organise our limbs in complex ways
feeling like our body is a connected whole
feeling strong enough
feeling we can adapt how we use our strength to fit the task
Notice the word feeling before each of these. Of course we have to have motor skills (balance, co-ordination, strength) to make our body work, but to have high levels of wellbeing we also need to feel confident in our capabilities. And that’s an extra piece.
Fish in water feel recognised and valued.
Our children readily use their first language - movement - to explore and express their lives. They tell us who they are, how they are and what they need all the time. They are usually very articulate in this language and able to speak of things way beyond their capacity within verbal language.
If this is ignored or sidelined, it becomes a drag on wellbeing.
When it is recognised and acted upon it is a major boost.
How do we create the conditions for these things to grow?
Children know they need to be in near constant motion in order to build the body they need for maximum wellbeing. They know they need lots of movement - and lots of different ways of moving - to build a well aligned, comfortable, settled, capable body. And they need us to recognise their skill and their work.
We adults need to know more about this. We need to dive beneath the milestones and understand the process of how physical development and wellbeing build together. And support it in refined ways.
In short, we need to support wellbeing as a physical process as much as a cognitive or behavioural one.
Get this right at the start, support children to trust, recognise and value the choices they make to build physical ease, vitality, adaptability and spontaneity and they have something that will feed their on-going wellbeing over a lifetime.
1Professor Ferre Laevers - Research Centre for Experiential Education, Leuven University - developed an early years assessment system centred on well-being and involvement as key aspects of a child’s ability to learn and progress effectively.