In the two prior articles in the Exercise for Kids series, you learned about physical literacy and fundamental movement skills. The final article in the series puts it all together and discusses the stages of motor learning and touches on the challenges early and late developers face during this time in their childhood and youth.
The Developmental Stages of Motor Learning
Exercise for kids is not only good for their overall health, it’s essential for proper development. As a child develops, they go through different stages of motor learning:
- Active Start Stage
- Fundamental Stage
- Learn to Train Stage
Physical Literacy – Active Start Stage
Age: Up to 6 years
Objective: Learn fundamental movements and link them together into play.
Physical activity is essential for healthy child development during the first six years of life. This is especially important during the first three years since brain growth is extremely rapid and learning creates more brain cell connections than in later years (Gruhn, 2002). Among its other benefits, physical activity during this time:
- Lays the foundation for future success in skill development by helping children enjoy being active, helping them to move efficiently, and by improving coordination and balance.
- Creates neural connections across multiple pathways in the brain, particularly when rhythmic activities are used.
- Enhances development of brain function, coordination, social skills, gross motor skills, emotional development, leadership and imagination.
- Helps children to build confidence and develop positive self-esteem.
- Helps builds strong bones and muscles, improves flexibility, develops good posture, improves fitness, promotes a health body weight, reduces stress and improves sleep.
Physical Literacy – Fundamental Stage
Age: Boys 6 to 9 years, Girls 6 to 8 years
Objective: Learn all fundamental movement skills and build overall motor skills.
This is a critical stage for the development of physical literacy, and it is during this time that the foundations of many advanced skills are laid down.
Skill development for children this age is best achieved through a combination of unstructured play in a safe and challenging environment; and quality instruction from knowledgeable teachers/ leaders/coaches in community recreation activities, schools, and minor sport programs.
- Skill development during this stage should be well-structured, positive and FUN, and should concentrate on developing the agility, balance, coordination and speed (ABCs), plus rhythmic activities.
- Hand and foot speed can be developed especially well by boys and girls during this stage. If this window of opportunity to develop speed is missed, body speed later in life may be compromised.
- This is a great age for children to take part in a wide range of sports. They should be encouraged to take part in land-based, water-based and ice/snow based activities at different times of the year.
- It is important that all children, including those with a disability, master fundamental movement skills before sport specific skills are introduced.
- Strength, endurance and flexibility need to be developed through games and fun activities, rather than a training regimen.
- Learning to “read” the movements going on around them and decision-making during games are critical skills that should be developed at this stage.
Physical Literacy – Learn to Train Stage
Age: Boys 9 to 12 years, Girls 8 to 11 years (ends at the onset of puberty)
Objective: Learn overall sport skills.
This is the most important stage for the development of sport specific skills being that it is the period of accelerated learning of coordination and fine motor control. It is also a time when children enjoy practicing skills they learn and seeing their own improvement.
- It is still too early for specialization in late specialization sports. Although many children at this age will have developed a preference for one sport or another. For full athletic development to occur children need to engage in a broad range of activities, playing at least 2-3 different sports.
- While competition is important, learning to compete should be the focus, versus winning. For best long-term results 70% of time in the sport should be spent in practice, with only 30% of the time spent on competition.
- This is an important time to work on flexibility.
- Develop endurance through games and relays.
Early vs. Late Developers
Adolescence is the period between childhood and becoming an adult. While both the start and end of this period are difficult to define, it is usually obvious when a youth is going through the many physical, psychological, social and sporting changes that accompany it.
Not all children enter adolescence at the same age, and it takes different children different lengths of time to complete the process. In general, children who enter adolescence early pass through it faster than those who start later, and whether you start early or late partially depends on your body shape. Stockier, more muscular children usually enter adolescence earlier than their peers who are thinner and leaner.
The whole process starts at about age 10-11 for girls, and about 2 years later for boys, usually takes 3 to 4 years to complete. This means that for girls aged 12, some will have almost completed the physical changes of puberty, while others have barely started. For boys the greatest range of development is found in 14 year olds.
One advantage late developers should have is that they have a longer period of time between learning fundamental movement skills and the onset of adolescence (see Figure 10). This Learn to Train stage is a time when the human body is perfectly designed for the acquisition and refinement of sport skills, and the longer a child is in this stage, the better developed their skills can become.
The Challenge in Sport for Early and Late Developers
Males: In reality, male late developers are often at a great disadvantage, and this is especially true in sports where age group competitions are held. As their peers go through puberty, late developing males find themselves much smaller, less muscular and physically weaker. Training and competing against bigger, stronger and faster opponents is not always fun, particularly in contact sports, and late developers therefore tend to drop out – despite the fact that in the long run they have greater potential for success.
There are also disadvantages of being an early developer. Early in adolescence early developers (who go through a relatively rapid but short adolescence) are bigger, stronger and faster than their peers and this often translates into sporting success. However, as late developing team mates and competitors go through their longer, more sustained, growth spurt those late developers eventually catch up with and surpass the early developers. With their late developing peers now bigger faster, stronger, and more skilled than them, the early developers tend to drop out of their sport towards the end of adolescence.
Females: For females the situation is less clear, but appears to be reversed. The rapid growth of breasts and the widening of hips, along with social pressures to discontinue sport involvement, can cause early developing females to drop out early in their teen years; while late developing females who have had success with their prepubescent bodies as teammates develop before them face the same difficulty when older.