Primary school children, aged six to twelve years old, will undergo a variety of developmental changes, both physical and mental, and as teachers it is imperative that we both understand and accommodate the physical needs of students in the learning environment. To fully comprehend these changes, one must consider the actual physical changes that occur, in particular the development of motor skills, as well as how to accommodate the physical needs and development of students during their primary school years.
Supplementary to these broader topics are the benefits of physical activity as well as the consequences of prolonged inactivity, and how a student’s physical development can either facilitate or restrict development in other areas.
Children between the ages of 6 and 10 (referred to as ‘middle childhood’) will experience a plethora of physical developments. Firstly, they will steadily gain weight and height, though their basic body structure will remain unchanged.
Children will also lose their 20 primary or ‘baby’ teeth, which will be replaced by permanent teeth.
Some of the most significant skills children of this age will develop are motor skills. Motor skills refer to a learned sequence of movements that combine to create an efficient action in order to become proficient at a certain activity. These can be divided into two subcategories: ‘gross motor skills’ and ‘fine motor skills’.
Gross motor skills are “large movements of the body that permit locomotion through and within the environment” (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2010) and includes such skills as walking and swimming, while fine motor skills are “Small, precise movements of particular parts of the body, especially the hands” (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2010), and include such skills as writing and drawing. In early childhood, humans rely largely on reflexive (that is, unlearned and involuntary) movement patterns, and thus are lacking fine motor skills.
As they reach middle childhood, children develop voluntary movement patterns, and begin refining both their gross and fine motor skills, gaining proficiency in a variety of actions. Children increase the speed and coordination of their running, kicking and throwing, and become able to integrate these movements into sports and other structured play activities. They also make advances in their handwriting, becoming smaller and more consistent, and their drawings, supported by further cognitive development, become more detailed.
Finally, the functions of the brain are enhanced in a number of ways. The two hemispheres of the brain develop into more unique sectors, and groups of regularly used neurons are cultivated. The process of myelination, ‘the growth of a fatty sheath around neurons that allows them to transmit messages more quickly’ (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2010), continues, permitting swift and sustained learning.
In order to accommodate and encourage student’s physical needs and developments, teachers should first and foremost always ensure that the learning area is safe. The classroom should constantly be checked for hazards, such as sharp edges on desks, loose flooring, or potentially dangerous substances, and teachers should ensure that “Rooms, bathrooms, and hallways are cleaned daily” (Wilford, 2006). Children should also be educated on how to recognise situations or objects that could harm them, and how to deal with them effectively.
As young children are especially vulnerable to illness, it is particularly important to do everything possible to prevent it, by keeping the area clean and sanitizing surfaces, and teaching children sanitary practices, such as washing their hands after toileting. This is a vital area of education; should a child suffer from a serious illness for a long period of time, their physical development may be permanently mired, having serious consequences on their entire lives. It is also important that students have access to healthy and nutritious food at school, and learn about sound eating habits.
Certain foods or lack thereof, have varying effects on students’ physical development, and should children be malnourished for an extended period of time, their development may be permanently stunted. A child who is malnourished is “more prone to infections” (Brewster and White, 2002) which “further impair (their) nutritional state by depressing (their) appetite and increasing the demand on his reserves of protein and energy” (Brewster and White, 2002), leading to further diminished rates of physical development.
For these reasons, it is imperative that primary school students’ learning environment be kept as safe and healthy as possible, through the teacher’s ensuring that the classroom is hazard free and sanitized, and that the children have access to nutritious and healthy food, as well as educating the children so that they may implement such skills themselves. By doing this, educators can accommodate the physical needs and developments of their children, and maximise the effectiveness of their schooling, both physical and academic.
During primary school, students are “at an optimal age in terms of motor skill learning” (Anshel, 1990), and thus motor skills develop rapidly, allowing them to perform skilled tasks. In order to help students develop these motor skills, it is important for teachers to incorporate physical activity into their curriculum. This assists in the development of both fine and gross motor skills. Firstly, they should provide frequent opportunities for students to participate in physical activity throughout the day; these activities would ideally allow the participation of children, regardless of their respective skill levels.
For example, when guiding children through skipping rope, the teacher could at first have them use a long rope and simply step over the rope; children who find this easy could then try actual skipping. Should this prove relatively easy, they could skip at a faster pace, and children who showed proficiency at this higher level could try crossing the rope over while skipping. Educators can also integrate physical activity into academic lessons, which will not only shorten the length of time between physical activities, but also keep the students more engaged in the lesson.
Conversely, it is also important to give students adequate time to rest. If they spend too much time exercising and overexert themselves, this will only lead to decreased concentration during the rest of their lessons, causing their performance to suffer. Additionally, children progressing through middle childhood still have relatively soft bones, so additional caution should be taken if they perform any high impact exercises, such as lifting heavy weights.
To reiterate, young students’ physical development can be accommodated through the utilisation of physical activity at school, however this must be done in moderation, otherwise it may be detrimental to the child’s education and general wellbeing. Finally, educators should be aware of how a child’s physical development can assist with or hinder their development in other areas. For example, a child who has developed at a faster rate than their peers will likely be more proficient at sports, and the strengthened neuron pathways will increase the rate at which they learn and become proficient at academic subjects.
The self-confidence this gives them may then be expressed through the child’s interest and application in school, which in turn will make their entire learning experience both easier and more pleasurable. Increased participation in both sport and academic activities will in turn make meeting and befriending other students easier, allowing the student to expand socially, again giving them a more positive outlook on school and further increasing their focus and determination to succeed physically and academically.
On the other hand, students who have not physically developed as quickly as others in their year group may not perform as well in either academic or physical activities, and subsequently suffer from ‘learned helplessness’, a situation in which a child’s experience leads them to believe they will always fail, and thus they do not try, acting “as though they (are) helpless to do better” (U. S. Dep Education, 1992). This lack of confidence and learned helplessness can cause students to become “listless and inattentive and sometimes disruptive” (U. S.
Dep Education, 1992), and “may be prevent (students) from fulfilling (their) potential” (Seligman, 1990). This is why it is essential to implement scaffolding into the learning environment, to support less physically developed students and assist them in succeeding, building their confidence. Therefore, it is important that teachers carefully monitor the progress of students individually, and provide support and encouragement appropriate to their developmental stage to facilitate the learning experience for them. Children completing their primary education will experience many new things; socially, mentally and physically.
It is the role of teachers to make this experience as beneficial as possible, and a key element of doing so is the understanding of the physical developments they undergo during this time. To fully appreciate these developments, educators should consider the benefit of physical activity, as well as the consequences of prolonged inactivity, how a student’s physical development can assist with or hinder their development in other areas, motor development in children and how this is influenced, and finally how to accommodate and support the developments and needs of their students.