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  • Movement and Physical Activities Are Not Just Kid’s Play!

    by Dr Tan Swee Kheng, PhD, Kinesiologist at Fifth Ray Integrated Activities

    Today’s parents are very mindful about their children’s readiness for school and preparation for academic achievement in the future. It is a valid concern as attaining high scores on tests and examinations seem to determine a child’s ‘path’ to success. The pre-occupation of attaining sterling grades for academic success has led to the boom in the education enrichment and tuition industries in Singapore. According to anecdotal evidence, even pre-school children (ages 4-6 years) are now attending enrichment classes to get a head start.

    It is natural for every parent to want the best for his/her child’s future. However one should ask, “Is the focus on one particular domain (academic) of child growth and development leading to the neglect of other areas that are just as important, if not more important, in the holistic growth and development of a child, particularly during the pre-school years?”

    Recent research has shown that children who are physically fitter have a larger brain structure called the basal ganglia (Chaddock et al. 2010). It is the part of the brain responsible for learning and cognitive control. In addition, the fitter children are better able to remember and integrate information (relational memory) compared to children who are less fit (Chaddock et al. 2010).

    Children learn, grow, develop, and interact through physical play and games. The movements involved in physical activities and play are a medium through which children experience and explore the many dimensions of their environment. Proper co-ordination and fluency of movements contributes to a child’s cognitive, social, emotional, physical and psychological growth and development. So physical activities do not only stimulate physical growth, it also stimulates brain development creating neural pathways and connections.

    In addition, children learn best when they are having fun and movement activities are fun for them. It also promotes fitness and healthy living given the increasing epidemic of obesity in today’s society.

    To many parents, physical activities and play may seem like just kids’ play. However, the movements involved and engaged by children during play are the foundations to “pre-academic skills” (p. 5)1. How is this so? When engaging in movement activities, multiple senses within the body (touch, visual feedback, balance, pressure, etc) are stimulated providing sensory inputs that are ‘fed’ to the brain. The brain in turn ‘collects’ the different sensory information, makes sense of them, and then integrate and process the information to produce appropriate corresponding movements or responses.

    The mental processes or executive function of the brain to produce the appropriate movements involve the maintenance of focus and attention, setting of goals, planning, organizing, and strategizing2. These are very complex mental functions which are essential processing skills for learning. During infancy, infants learn about the cause and effects of their movements such as the moving sequence of their hands and legs to be able to crawl or the positioning of their trunk and feet to allow independent standing and walking. The recognition of the cause and effects in movements promotes basic organization of thought processes and planning leading to the development of higher mental executive functions for more complex academic learning later in life.

    Just as children are required to learn to solve mathematical questions and develop comprehension skills in school, children also need to learn the proper execution and delivery of movement patterns and skills. For example, the ability to catch a ball of different size, traveling speeds, and ball direction would require different catching techniques. Similarly, the ability to speak and speech fluency is a very complex motor skill. The movements of the mouth and tongue need to be co-ordinated and manipulated to produce the desired sounds and words audibly.

    It is commonly observed that children who experience difficulties in the classroom tend to display poor co-ordination and motor skills during movement activities and play. Hence, “to be poorly co-ordinated was clearly a disadvantage in the athletic, social, physical appearance, and scholastic domains” (p. 216)3. Remember when you were playing a sport in primary or secondary school and there were always a few classmates whom you never wanted in your team? It may not have been intentional. However, can you imagine how it must have felt like to be one of these ‘rejected’ children? Their “deficiencies” would have made a significant impact on their levels of self-confidence and perception of self-competence.

    Often, children who are not well equipped with the proper movement skills are not able to play effectively with their peers or make friends. They may either be excluded from play and games by/with their peers, or they may choose to withdraw from any form of physical activity. In turn, these children may become socially disadvantaged, which can then have repercussions on their levels of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-perception. Importantly, this can apply to both children with and without special learning needs. Hence, being proficient and skilled in movement is not only advantageous from an athletic or physical perspective. Having poor motor co-ordination will cause children to have difficulties dealing with daily tasks at home, in school, and during playground activities.

    Children are receptive to physical activities as the notion of play is second nature to them. Thus, providing children with many opportunities to practice the basic fundamental movement patterns of running, jumping, skipping, catching, kicking, striking, to name but a few, are essential. The design of appropriate programs are important to guide and aid learning for good neurocognitive and neuromuscular development. Movement and physical play will create an environment that allows the child numerous opportunities to develop their learning processes.

    The right opportunities and appropriate guidance will help a child to become more proficient and skilled “movers” developing movement control, and master their co-ordination. In addition, movement activities and play will assist children to acquire effective social skills, life-long skills for daily living, mental processing skills for learning, as well as set the “groundwork for the more complex sensory integration that is necessary for reading, writing, and good behavior” (Ayres, 1979, p.7)1.


    Kogan S. (2004). Step by step: A complete movement education curriculum. 2nd Ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    Brodkin A.M. (2007). Explaining executive function: Is your child a disorganized student, a poor planner, an aimless academic? A lack of executive function may be to blame.

    Chaddock L., Erickson K.I., Prakash R.S., VanPatter M., Voss M.W., Pontifex M.B., Raine L.B., Hillman C.H., Kramer A.F. (2010) Basal ganglia volume is associated with aerobic fitness in preadolescent children. Developmental Neuroscience, 32, 249-56.

    Rose B., Larkin D., & Berger B.G. (1997). Co-ordination and gender influences on the perceived competence of children. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 14, 210-221.

    For information on neurocognitive and neuromuscular development programs for children, email