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Eye on the ball: Coordination of mind, body

Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2011

Editor's note: "Focus on Fitness" is a Clarion feature with healthy lifestyle advice from local and national health and fitness experts. Check here weekly great information and tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

Perceptual motor development is the progression of the body's ability to move in relation to its surroundings. As the brain and neuromuscular system mature a person is better able to make coordinated movements. This maturation is enhanced by physical activities that require controlled movements forcing the body to react to stimuli. Team and individual sports enhance perceptual motor development, as do recreational endeavors, free play, games and hand/foot eye activities. There are many benefits to improving perceptual motor ability including improved academic performance, greater success in sport and increased self-esteem. Continuing to participate in this type of physical activity as we age greatly improves quality of life.

Dr. Linda Neklason was one of my favorite professors at Portland State University in Portland Oregon. During one of her classes she shared an intriguing story related to perceptual motor development and academic performance. She was visiting a one-room schoolhouse in rural Oregon early in her career when she witnessed a unique method of testing student reading ability. The teacher at the school would have each student walk across an old hitching post for horses. The hitching post was much like a raised balance beam. The teacher said that students who had difficulty with this test of balance would have difficulty with reading. It was Dr. Neklason's contention that reading skills could be enhanced through improved perceptual motor development. It stands to reason she was right.

When you improve a child's confidence to participate in physical activity you improve their self-esteem. When kids feel better about themselves they are more likely to try new activities in and out of the classroom. There can be direct benefits to academic performance also. For example, pre-juggling and juggling activities improve eye tracking which is an essential skill in reading.

The more a child participates in activities that require them to coordinate their brain and neuromuscular system the better prepared they will be for participation in sport. Not only does this improve performance it also reduces the risk of injury. It is through these activities that kids learn how to fall, avoid contact and adjust the body to reduce the impact of movements. Simply learning how to bend the knees when you land after jumping greatly reduces the risk of tearing a ligament in the knee.

Perceptual motor development screening should be done early in a student's career at school. Students not developing at a normal pace should be encouraged to participate in activities to promote their development. Below are some general guidelines for K-2 level students in relation to perceptual motor development. Core strength testing is included because it is difficult to move the body without core strength.

Kindergarten:

* Skip forward 20 feet

* Complete 5 sit-ups

* Balance on one foot for 10 seconds

* Toss/catch a juggling scarf from right to left (6 catches)

First Grade

* Skip forward 40 feet

* Complete 10 sit-ups

* Balance on one foot for 15 seconds

* Toss/catch two juggling scarves right to left (6 catches)

Second Grade

* Skip backward 40 feet

* Complete 15 sit-ups

* Balance on one foot 15 seconds (eyes closed)

* Juggle 3 scarves (6 catches)

Brain and neuromuscular function are improved through physical activity at any age. The aging process results in a loss of our perceptual motor ability, staying active can slow this progression. This not only increases the number of years one is able to participate in activities they enjoy it also decreases the risk of injury due to falls. The elderly are at a far greater risk to broken bones and falls are the leading cause of these breaks. Improving/maintaining your balance through physical activity greatly reduces the risk of falling. Hiking on uneven ground, skiing, skating, bike riding, and kayaking are but a few of the activities that are helpful. Juggling, Frisbee, kicking a soccer ball and other hand/foot/eye coordination activities are good too. It is never too late to learn a new skill. Each time you learn a new skill you create new pathways in the brain. Just as crosswords and reading keep the mind sharp so does physical activity that requires thought, concentration and coordinated movements.

Safety is important when participating in physical activity at any age. Choose activities that are age/skill appropriate and move on to more difficult activities as skill improves. The young and old alike can benefit greatly from activities that enhance perceptual motor ability. These activities develop the neuromuscular system when we are young and maintain it as we age.

Charlie Stephens is a retired P.E. teacher and owner/operator of Kenai Sport & Train, Inc. He can be reached at ccstephens@gci.net.



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