The Physicality of Children

by Nancy Monson

Children learn through their bodies FIRST, through their physical connection to the world, or in other words, through real experience. So would adults if their education would have been more experiential rather than over focused on the mental. It is very worthwhile to look at the trend of problems children are encountering these days: ADD, ADHD, Sensory Integration, apathy, increased discipline problems, violence, increased mental disorders, low test scores, more drop outs. These are on the increase, and what seems to be the governments answer is increasing the pressure on testing, putting more computers in the classroom and increasing special education classrooms. I see hardly anyone looking for answers towards the body, and paying attention to how children really do learn; in fact, many schools seem to be doing the opposite by cutting out programs that are more body focused: physical education classes, the arts, even cutting out recess so that children can have more time to “learn.”

Let’s start by looking at how children do learn. How does a baby learn? A baby starts by making sounds, feeling sensations, by touching, tasting, smelling, looking. One little bundle of sensing apparatus and bones and muscles starting to feel the ability to move and stretch. And we can see how rapidly that increases, and what a child who first gains locomotion is like: let me at the world! Children learn through mimicking (like the rest of the animal world) through experimenting and through play. A child doesn’t lose this approach to discovery, which is what learning really is, until … he becomes limited in being able to be truly physically engaged towards the learning process and the environment where he lives. Which is exactly what sitting at desks, reading text books for information, using computers, watching videos and writing papers is doing.

There is another important aspect to the physical aspect of learning. At a very young age children form their relationship to health and vitality. A child who is physical, discovers the body’s qualities of strength, endurance, curiosity, sensitivity, confidence, power, vulnerability, and just the sheer joy of a full range of movement, feels vital and whole within themselves. When I ask parents what they most want for their children, self esteem and health are at the top of the list. Many of us have forgotten what it is like to be children and play outside all day, climbing trees, making forts, exploring creeks, running, playing games, throwing, kicking rocks and how vitalized and alive we felt at the end of the day. Confident. Healthy. Upright and open structure. We are each given a body to move through life with, and if we use all of it, make the blood pump through the arteries to every muscle, and teach it a great deal of what its capacities are, we set it up for health. All we have to do is look at the statistics on children’s obesity to know that this is not what’s happening in this culture. In fact, this culture is one of the more unhealthier ones in the world. This relationship to health forms at a young age through the physical fitness, engagement, use, and care of the body. We often find ourselves trying to get this birth right back as adults.

Of course, the word balance comes in here. If all we did with children was to be physical with them, we would have lopsided children. Now, our education system is developing lopsided children on the mental end of the spectrum. What I am saying is that the body is the vehicle for learning, let’s use it, in conjunction with the development of mental processes and the inclusion of the heart (caring, kindness, respect, compassion, and emotional connection to the world). This heart aspect of education changes the emphasis on the sole development of external skills and achievements to embrace the equally important development and honoring of the inner life of children.

What can be done to give children the experiential, body centered kind of education they need so that their energy may be properly directed and guided leading towards a more holistic and complete development of their individual potentials? I am the co-director of a daycare center for infants through preschool and the director of a private elementary school. Both have an emphasis on health, vitality, and developing a relationship to the natural world. After studying children for 23 years it became clear that they learn through direct and meaningful experience. Babies need sensory exploration, they need space to move, to kick, to roll, to just lay there and stare at the invisible. They need allowance to make lots of sounds, to cry, to make faces. They need to have time outside, to feel the seasons, hear the sounds of nature, know the shades of light, experience the rain. This stage of experiencing the world through the sensory doesn’t end! As they grow, the same is true that they need room to explore, to try out the new motions their muscles can do, to climb, throw, kick, dance, play, run, touch, taste, smell. Watch what kids do when they want to learn about something that they find, if they are healthy kids: they do all of these things! As they grow, there must be a lot of room for kids to be physical, and this has to be part of their education, both by parents and by teachers.

In our preschool the kids go outside to play for as long as weather permits every day, and hiking in the foothills once a week. I have watched their confidence in themselves grow as they get stronger and stronger from hiking up big hills, running down full speed, climbing rocks and trees, building forts with branches, rocks and mud. A lot of social problems disappear when kids have more space to move, and their physical energy isn’t all jammed up from too much information being crammed into their brains. There is a lot of research out that shows that brain synapsis actually hook up because of interactive experience, not because of one sided data input.

Our elementary school is based on experiential learning. We spend the first three weeks or more of school hiking, and after that go twice a week throughout the year. Each year we choose an environmental theme for the whole school. Last year was animals and this year is the earth. So, we go out and we explore, we experience, we ask questions, we decide what it is we are actually studying and what it is we want to know. At the same time they are exploring, there is more time to play, for children learn a great deal through how they interact in their play. Here again is the three centered learning. With our bodies we explore and engage, with our minds we ask questions and offer what we already know, and with our hearts we feel a connection to this world we live in, and a passion to want to know more because it is important to us. Kids naturally have this connection to nature unless it has been completely disregarded in their upbringing. They care about nature like a friend. At least 75% of the academics are integrated into this yearly theme. So, the kids are physical a lot more than in regular schools, but they can also focus for long periods of time with more concentration and determination, with a respect for quality in their work.

In addition, we have a school lunch program. The kids bring a fruit and drink, and we all cook the lunches together: all organic and home made. Eating is truly a healthy, community experience. Once a week we have a movement class that includes stretching, yoga and dance. We also have a P.E. program so that children can develop the skills needed to play sports. It’s important here to say something about the important developmental role that sports play. We want kids to be able to play any sport of their choosing, so we teach all the basic skills inherent in any sport. It is important to add here that kids need to be exposed to sports so that as they grow older they can choose to stay aerobic and fit. The key element here is finding the right sports for your child, and the right coaches and teachers to give your child the best orientation possible. The goal would be to eventually have your child master some sport where they can use their physical gifts. I am not saying that every child is going to be an elite athlete, but every child has the potential to feel confident at a sport that blends their talents and physical capacities. Everyone knows how good it feels to do something well with their body; again that great experience of vitality.

There are many other elements important in creating a truly balanced education for children, but without the physical element, it is extremely difficult for kids to be centered in themselves, because their bodies are telling them to move! To touch! To let their energy circulate. In the early years it is just a constant discipline problem, and in the later years this vitality shrivels and the problem becomes apathy, disinterest, a deadening of an alive and excited spirit that once was a sponge for learning. If we could be more honest we would look at kids and be a lot more worried. You can see a child’s confidence and spirit reflected in their structure, how they move, their overall muscle tone and relaxation. A child who is only outside 15 minutes twice a day at recess, who sits at a desk most of the day, or at a t.v. or computer, is not going to have this vital life force necessary to face head on the challenges of a very complex world.


© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.

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