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An Unexpected Consequence for Kids Who Sit Too Much

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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The list of consequences for kids forced to sit too long is a lengthy one. Among other things, sitting is now considered as detrimental to health as is smoking (the human body was built to move!). Research also has shown us that sitting increases fatigue and reduces concentration, neither of which is an optimal condition for learning. And we all know that young children need to physically experience concepts to best understand them. So, when I tell you that too much sitting in classrooms also leads to an inability to master body and spatial awareness, you might think that it’s no big deal, considering the other consequences.

But let’s ponder it. As adults we use our body and spatial awareness to navigate through the world. We can (usually) walk down a crowded sidewalk without bumping into a lamppost, or maneuver our way around trees on a crowded ski slope. We find our way to work and through large shopping malls. We fit our cars into narrow parking spaces or garages and, more importantly, keep our cars from coming into contact with other cars, people, or objects. We understand the social customs that dictate we not be like the “close talker” depicted on an episode of Seinfeld. We understand that some people do not want to be touched. And when a hug or a handshake is appropriate, we’ve learned how strong and how long it should be.

These are lessons that cannot be learned by sitting at a desk. Like so much else in early childhood, body and spatial awareness must be experienced and practiced if they’re to develop fully. When a baby is born, we realize she doesn’t come equipped with a perfectly functioning proprioceptive sense (awareness of her body in space). That’s why we play “I’ve got your nose,” “This Little Piggy,” and knee-bouncing, lifting, and spinning games with her. But when she starts navigating her way through the world via crawling and walking, the only consideration we give to her spatial sense is whether or not she’s going to bang into the coffee table. And if she doesn’t – or doesn’t continually – we take for granted that she’ll be able to successfully navigate her way through the world.

And maybe she will. But we’ve all had children in our classes who line up too closely to one another, and who bump into everyone and everything. We’ve all had children whose desire to “crash and go boom” overrides any respect for personal space. Who hug or tag or poke too hard. Who view themselves as clumsy or uncoordinated and therefore lack confidence in their physical abilities. And many a child has shown up in second or third grade not knowing his elbow from his shoulder, or unable to distinguish the difference between a lowercase “b” and a lowercase “d.”

But there are even more consequences to be considered. The research of early childhood experts Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has discovered a large gap between the spatial skills of children in lower socioeconomic classes and those in the middle class. The result is that the former struggle with and fall behind in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In fact, this gap, which is already enormous by age three, has a negative impact on a child’s math readiness skills at age five. As Kathy told me in a conversation for Studentcentricity, “space and math go together.”

Only experience with movement can remedy all of this. Roberta told me, during the same conversation, that children need to explore such “fancy” words as over, under, and through! Sure, they can “learn” about them while sitting at a desk. But you and I know that it is only by physically experiencing these concepts that children will find them meaningful and therefore come to fully grasp them.

When children have opportunities to explore, not only these positional concepts, but also direction (forward, backward, left, right), levels (low, high, in the middle), and pathways (straight, curving, zigzagging) – and to create b’s and d’s with their bodies – they are less likely to struggle, not only with STEM, but with reading and writing in general, and with making their way through the world. 

As I’ve been saying for nearly four decades, the learning process involves the mind and the body working together. And, unexpected or not, any consequence for kids who sit too much is one consequence too many.

Note: It all begins with an understanding of, and respect for, personal space. In this short video, you'll find suggestions for several simple activities you can do to create this understanding. Click here to watch – even if it’s just to ensure your classrooms are chaos- and accident-free!

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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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Guest Friday, 15 February 2019