Study: Disadvantaged Preschoolers Lack Basic Gross Motor Skills

Can your preschooler kick a ball? Run? Climb a ladder to go down the slide? Seem like pretty basic activities for the 3- to -5-year-old set, yes? Unfortunately, not every child has the skill set to perform these childhood stapes. A troubling study in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport finds that more than eight out of ten disadvantaged preschoolers have significant developmental delays in basic gross motor skills.

Four-hundred-and-sixty-nine preschool students who are enrolled in urban, state-funded programs were observed doing basic activities designed to test motor skills including running, jumping, throwing, and catching. Eighty-six percent of the children scored below the 30 percentile mark.

"These fundamental motor skills -- running and catching and throwing and kicking -- are the movement ABCs," said Jackie Goodway, lead author of the study and associate professor of physical activity and educational services at Ohio State University. "If children don't learn the ABCs, they can't read. And if they don't learn basic motor skills they won't participate in sports or exercise. That's the problem we may be facing with the children in this study."

The fear is that as they get older, these children will not participate in physical activities and will become obese. Childhood obesity is a concern for many experts.

Research provided by KaBOOM!, a nonprofit that works towards securing safe playspaces within walking distance of every American child, found that childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1980, from 6.5% to 16.3%. The Institutes of Medicine recommend that communities "build and maintain parks and playgrounds that are safe and attractive for playing, and in close proximity to residential areas" in order to increase children's activity levels and decrease obesity.

Boys fared slightly better than girls in activities where they had to use a ball or a bat. This is common, Goodway said, but disadvantaged girls do worse than other girls nationwide.

The study reiterates the thought that motor skills must be practiced and honed -- hard for many children who hail from urban neighborhoods where playspaces are at a premium. 

“Most people, even many educators, believe that motor skills just naturally develop in children, but our study shows that’s clearly not true,” Goodway said. “Like any skill, there needs to be instruction, there needs to be practice, there needs to be feedback.  That’s how children master these motor skills.”

Goodway speculates that the problem could be that children from disadvantaged, urban neighborhoods don’t get the opportunities that other children have to play outside in parks and backyards where they can learn how to run and jump and catch footballs and dribble basketballs.

"Their parks may be full of gangs, they don't have backyards that are safe, they are often raised by single mothers who are working multiple jobs and don't have time to supervise them outside," Goodway said.

"These children spend most of their time sitting in school and then going home and sitting in front of the TV."

Goodway said she is currently studying the effectiveness of a program that she has created that she designed to help little ones get moving and develop these skills. But she says that she hopes that Head Start and other universal programs include more physical education as part of the school day.

"We have a window of opportunity during early childhood when we can teach disadvantaged children motor skills and help get them back to where they need to be," Goodway said. "But once they get to late elementary school, it is very hard to changed their attitudes and behaviors."

While the children in this study were mostly minorities, Goodway said the results would apply to any children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Ethnicity doesn’t matter.  It’s about poverty,” she said.

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