‘Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes about through his movements.’ Dr Maria Montessori, Italian educator and physician
In October 2015, I attended a conference in London on Child Development in Education run by the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology (INPP).
INPP has been researching the effects of immaturity in the functioning of the central nervous system on learning outcomes, emotional functioning and behaviour since 1975. Sally Goddard Blythe, an expert on early education (appearing on the left of the opposite picture), is the director of INPP International having worked there since 1988. As well as organising this conference, she’s the author of seven books on child development and believes there’s a strong link between undeveloped physical skills at primary school age and academic underperformance. With children glued to television sets or games consoles and less inclined to engage in physical activity, her concern is that these problems could be set to worsen.
It’s becoming increasingly well recognised that having an active childhood is the key to having a healthier and happier life and this is supported by science. Ms Goddard Blythe has advocated physical screening for children aged four or five in order to identify pupils who may not have the physical skills needed for learning.
Swimming, like other types of physical activity and sport, can positively improve children’s overall health and wellbeing. But as an educator, teacher and coach, who has also taught other sports and activities such as football and dance, I have always suspected swimming offers children something extra. Swimming has the ‘X’ factor.
Recent research by Prof Robyn Jorgensen of Australia on 7,000 children revealed that children who started swimming as babies or toddlers have advanced cognitive and physical abilities compared to children who hadn’t. Early years swimming also gave children academic advantages when they started school (1).
So WHY does swimming differ from other sports?
This is a topic that has piqued my curiosity for a while and I was looking forward to listening to world experts in child development to find out more. Several well-known academics, practitioners and policy makers from the fields of psychology, neurosciences, education and politics were presenting at the INPP conference.
1) The first five years of life have been shown to be crucial for developing mental, physical and social-emotional skills (2).
2) Humans learn through their bodies. From birth, movement provides infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers the stimuli that they need for the development of their brains, bodies and senses (3).
3) Physical development in children is the window to all developments including psychological, socio-emotional and academic.
4) Laying solid physical foundations are necessary for effective learning at school. Chronological age should not be used as a sole measure of physical and mental maturity.
5) Lack of sufficient exposure to different physical activities in the early-years has a limiting effect on the development of neurophysiological systems and physical development in the human body.
6) Delayed physical development and lack of physical literacy in children are associated with academic underachievement, inability to socially engage with others and poor writing, drawing and attention skills (2).
7) Immature or delayed physical developments increases the amount of energy required to carry out other routine daily tasks which is more taxing on the brain.
8) To stimulate physical development in children, children should be given plenty opportunities to be freely active and play in different environments.
Children must be given daily opportunities to be active from birth. Plays, games and sports should be used to keep children (especially 0-5 year olds) physically active. Not only that, but children need to participate in a variety of activities to gain the age appropriate norms for body awareness, balance and coordination before going to school.
A) We know that participation in swimming can start very early in life. Babies can be introduced to water and swimming before they can walk, talk or sit up independently. There are many advantages to starting swimming early. If science tells us we learn through our bodies and that a child’s brain is developed through movements, an activity like swimming should be ideal. Why? Because with swimming, different parts of the body can move in all directions with barely any restrictions, in an environment which is both stimulating and yet gentle on young developing bodies
B) The repetitive nature of movements in swimming improves performance over time for all age groups. However, repetition makes practice predictable for children. The ability to predict reduces the amount of mental energy required to carry out the activities (3). Most swimming teachers have experienced that many children, the under 5s in particular, thrive in a repetitive environment. This is because they can predict the actions and they can do something slightly different without fearing the consequences associated with change.
C) The symmetric arm and leg actions in swimming means the right side, and the left side of the body, must follow the same pattern of movements and one cannot only rely on one side of the body to do most of the work (compare it to other sports like football or basketball). Any type of physical activity which provides children with opportunities to physically and EQUALLY engage both sides of their body improves coordination.
D) Water provides an almost weightless environment in which children can move their limbs, torso, neck and head freely. Swimming requires skills to manage your balance in the water whilst travelling in it. In a learn-to-swim process, a child learns to move in different directions both in vertical and horizontal positions whilst keeping his/her balanced in the water. To improve body awareness and balance in children, they need to participate in activities which could offer unrestricted movements of different body parts in varied directions (3). So swimming must improve body awareness and balance immensely.
I think so. Swimming is unique because it simultaneously improves a child’s balance, body awareness and coordination in a stimulating environment. Swimming significantly promotes physical development and could help to lay the necessary foundation for learning success.
So to parents reading this, I hope you are now convinced that taking children to swimming lessons year-round, especially on those cold dark winter nights, is a wise decision!
If you have any questions about this blog or for any other swimming related questions please feel free to contact me (Marjan).
2) Kirk M.A & Rhodes R.E (2011). Motor skill interventions to improve fundamental movement skills of preschoolers with developmental delay. Adapted physical activity quarterly; 28(3):210-32.
3) The Genius of Natural Childhood. Secrets of Thriving Children (2011). Sally Goddard Blythe ISBN: 9781907359040