“Parents can do so much at home to encourage physical fitness,” says Rae Pica, a movement specialist who is featured in Programs 4 and 8 of Art to Heart. “They first of all can encourage their children to be active, because the children who are most active are those who have been encouraged by their parents to be active. They can play with their children. That serves two purposes: It gives their children someone to play with, but they are serving as a role model as well. They’re giving the impression that play is a good thing.”
And play is a good thing, Pica asserts. “Play is how children learn about themselves and the world around them. It’s how they learn how to get along with other people; how they learn to resolve conflict; how they learn the importance of rules and strategies; how they learn critical and creative thinking skills, through imaginative play, making up their own games.”
The Power of Play
Play is also linked to physical fitness and health. Sedentary lifestyles and organized sports programs where children spend more time waiting to participate than actually participating are contributing to skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes and may have long-term negative impacts. “This is thought to be the first generation of children who will not outlive their parents,” Pica says.
Learning movement basics and enjoying games and free play should be a priority in early childhood, rather than organized sports, Pica says. “My feeling about soccer for 4-year-olds is that they have no place in the soccer program because they don’t yet know how to use their bodies well. Nor do they have the social, emotional, or cognitive skills to handle complex games and rules and strategies or to understand competition.”
Early childhood physical activity focusing on movement education gives young children knowledge of body and spatial directions and how to use their bodies, Pica says. “They learn how to perform fundamental motor skills like running and walking and jumping and bending and stretching. And if they can use their bodies well, then they’re going to have the confidence and poise to continue to use their bodies throughout their lives. And then they can go on to sports and dance.”
Creative Thinking Through Movement
Early movement education also builds creative thinking, Pica says. In Program 4 of Art to Heart, she shows a group of preschoolers doing movement exploration and divergent problem solving. “Divergent problem solving means that there are going to be a lot of possible responses to any single challenge,” Pica says. For example, she might ask the children to show her a crooked shape, a round shape, or a flat shape. “And the children would find their own responses to that. And whenever possible, I tried to point out the different responses that I was seeing so they understood that it was OK to find their own way, to express themselves individually.”
As children move on to the early elementary years, Pica says, convergent problem-solving activities are more appropriate. A physical education teacher, for example, might call for movements that would guide students toward doing a forward roll or another specific movement. With preschool children, Pica recommends emphasizing creative movement exploration, divergent problem solving, and noncompetitive physical games where the emphasis is on fun. “Parents need to realize that it’s OK to play with their children, that they—and their children—don’t have to be ‘accomplishing something’ every minute. Accomplishment should not be the main purpose of childhood.”
Rae Pica has served as an adjunct faculty member with the Department of Kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire and has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues. As a member of a task force of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, Pica helped to create the Active Start national guidelines for early childhood physical activity. She’s the movement consultant for Bo on the Go, a new Canadian TV program promoting physical activity for preschoolers, and is an expert for ClubMom.com.