This article was written by Sue Heron for the 4th issue of Amrita Magazine.
It is awe-inspiring to witness the incredible development of physical skills over childhood. Within two decades, the human infant progresses from barely being able to lift their head from the floor through to an independent adult, able to physically adapt to a vast range of situations. Perhaps, what is not fully appreciated, is the acquisition of postural and movement skills is founded on the development of an intricate mechanism called ‘postural control’.
Postural control can be defined as ‘the control of the body’s position in space for the purposes of balance and orientation’ Shumway-Cook, A. & Woollacott, M. (2012). It underpins all our functional actions, enabling us to sit, read, stand, dress, skip, run and jump. For example, whilst reading a book, postural control enables us to sit balanced on a chair and isolate our head and eye movements to follow the words on the page or, whilst dressing, postural control allows us to lift up a foot to put on a sock, and to keep our body stable to do up buttons.
Although the emergence of a child’s postural control is a natural process, a result of physical play and activity, increasingly research shows just how complex the process is and how long it takes to develop. Assatiante et al (1993) identified 3 distinct phases: the first occurring at around 3-6 years, the second at ages 7-8 years and the final adult stage not maturing until around 18 years. Shumway-Cook et al (2012) defined the complex interactions between a child’s neural and musculoskeletal systems which lead to the development of mature postural control i.e.
- increasing muscle strength,
- development of coordinated muscle responses,
- the maturation and organization of the visual, tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular sensory systems,
- the refinement of a ‘mental map’ of the body (which links perception to action)
- the development of increasingly sophisticated anticipatory and adaptive mechanisms which enable the child to maintain balance by anticipating and modifying their movements.
Traditionally it was assumed that as postural control is an automatic process, i.e. we don’t usually have to consciously think how we position our body or how we maintain our balance, it did not require the individual’s attention (Shumway-Cook 2012). However, dual attention studies now reveal that postural control, especially in young children, definitely does compete for a child’s attention along with other tasks they may be asked to do. Reilly et al (2008) demonstrated the cognitive nature of postural control, they observed younger children, aged 4-6 years, completed a memory task quicker if they were standing in a slightly more stable position. From her research, Reilly concludes that “early childhood educators should consider that interaction (between postural control, attention and memory) when planning an academic curriculum and creating an environment most conductive to learning” (Reilly 2008 p 101). She suggests a range of measures including; more supportive seating and opportunities for perceptual-motor activities that emphasize the development of postural control throughout the child’s day e.g. Yoga! If the postural control process becomes more automatic for the child it will require less of their attention allowing them to have more attentional resources to devote to cognitive tasks. These thoughts are backed up by Cerrillo-Urbina et al (2015) who reviewed the literature and found Yoga style exercise led to an improvement in attention and cognitive functions in children with ADHD.
Miyahara et al (2008) investigated the role postural control plays in children’s fine motor control e.g. writing and drawing skills. The team found children with better postural control drew more accurate pictures compared with those who had less postural control. Interestingly, they found no direct relationship between drawing accuracy and the children’s behaviour e.g. hyperactivity and inattention, concluding that the inaccurate drawing was a result of postural instability rather than fidgeting caused by inattention or hyperactivity.
“The team found children with better postural control drew more accurate pictures compared with those who had less postural control”
In 2005, Assatiante et al looked specifically at the neurological component of postural control, and suggested the process has two distinct steps: the first involving the child building up a repertoire of postural strategies, the second consisting of the child/teenager gradually learning to select the most appropriate postural strategy. This research highlights the need for children to have many, and varied, early opportunities for movement through which they can develop and refine their postural control. Phetsitong et al (2013) evaluated the effectiveness of a Yoga based programme in pre-school children, finding it helped both their balance and flexibility, and thus could help prepare children for healthy living. Tatty Bumpkin has recently concluded a year-long review on the impact of Yoga based sessions on reception aged children and found significant improvements in the children’s postural control skills, Tatty Bumpkin Ltd (2017).
In conclusion, there has been a tendency to view a child’s physical development as a largely automatic process, occurring alongside their cognitive development. We are now realising that physical and cognitive development are closely interlinked and basic physical processes, such as postural control, need to be valued and nurtured. As educationalist and author Laura Grace Weldon notes, a child’s ‘readiness for school’ also includes the appropriate development of movement and sensory systems, this is not created by workbooks or computer programs. It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.
Shumway-Cook, A. & Woollacott, M. (2012). Motor Control. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Williams.
Assaiante, C. Amblard, B. (1993). Otogenesis of head stabilization in space during locomotion in children; influence of visual cues. Exp. Brain Res, 93, 499-515.
Reilly, D. et al. (2008). Interaction Between the Development of Postural Control and the Executive Function of Attention. J of Motor Behaviour, 40, 2, 90-102.
Reilly, D. et al. (2008). Interaction Between the Development of Postural Control and the Executive Function of Attention. J of Motor Behaviour, 40, 2, 101.
Cerrillo-Urbina, A, J. et al. (2015). The effects of physical exercise in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trails. Child Care, Health and Development, 41, 6, 779 – 788.
Miyahara, M. et al. (2008). Effect of postural instability on drawing errors in children: A synchronized kinematic analysis of hand drawing and body motion. J. of Human Movement Science, 3, 5, 705-713.
Assaiante, C. et al. (2005). Dev. Of Postural Control in Healthy Children: A Functional Approach. Neural Plasticity, 12, 2-3, 109-118.
Phetsitsong, R. et al (2013). Effectiveness of Kids Yoga to Physical Development in Pre-school Children in Salawan School, Nakhon-Pathom, J of Public Health and Development, 11, 3, 27-38.
Tatty Bumpkin Ltd (2017). Effect of Yoga Based Sessions in Reception aged children. Tatty Bumpkin Ltd. Under publication.
Laura Grace Weldon. (2012). ‘Reading Readiness Has to Do With The Body’. Blog post – https://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/08/07/reading-readiness-has-to-do-with-the-body/
Sue heads up training, and franchise support at Children Inspired by Yoga: Tatty Bumpkin Ltd . Drawing on her extensive academic and practical experience, Sue has help to develop the Children Inspired by Yoga programme, linking it to the English and Scottish national curriculums to ensure children can maximise their potential.