Agility is a very particular skill; it's not just about balance or co-ordination, although these are important elements of it. An agile child is able to combine balance and co-ordination with the ability to move rapidly, change direction, stop promptly, maintain core strength and endure effort for a sustained period of time. An agile child responds quickly to changing circumstances - such as an adjustment in their centre of gravity as they tumble from a log or whirl and dance to music. This child is also far less likely to be injured during active play, because they are familiar with and confident about their body's capabilities and can react appropriately.
The scaffolding of these competencies is, therefore, a fundamental component of high-quality early years provision. It is, of course, perfectly possible for children to demonstrate their agility indoors, but as with many aspects of children's physical development, outdoors lends itself most readily to the development and support of this vital life skill.
In your nursery garden, or in the local park or woodland, children are able to make big movements, cover large areas of ground and test their bodies against physical obstacles such as trees and other people. Outdoors, the weather also challenges children's agility - for example, keeping a kite flying or an umbrella the right way around on a blustery day.
Fitness, advanced motor skills, agility and a respectable BMI (Body Mass Index) are associated with healthy lifestyles and well-being, and these are of increasing concern to society as a whole, due to the rising prevalence of childhood obesity. Yet the constituent parts of agility are apparent in children right from birth.
As babies begin to understand the effect of their own movements, they become more agile; reaching out for objects, turning their heads in response to a familiar voice or sound, kicking their legs in excitement.
As their efforts become more accurate and swifter, toddlers' movements become pro-active rather than reactive. With the right encouragement they will choose to be active, and the connection between young children's physical activity and their neurological development is now well documented and understood.
FOSTERING AGILITY OUTDOORS
Early years practitioners can make a significant contribution to children's increasing agility by providing opportunities for active outdoor play. Bearing in mind the combination of abilities that impact upon agility, offering loose parts resources that children can choose, manipulate and experiment with independently will be the most beneficial and cost effective. You may be surprised by how much of your provision is already supporting children's agility. For example:
- Safely negotiating obstacles on a bike or trike
- Lifting treasure baskets out of the shed and carrying them over to a home-made den
- Manipulating a hosepipe or watering can to care for plants in the veggie garden
- Skipping, dancing and other aerobic, gymnastic activities.
As with any planned improvement to outdoor provision, the process of change begins with observation. Adapt your setting's observation tool to focus on the skills that combine to create an agile child; record what children are doing, what resources they are using, where and with whom they are playing, and how you know they are developing agility.
Repeated observations over a number of weeks will provide a picture of how your outdoor space affords children opportunities to be spontaneously agile, and reflection will allow you to establish what types of active play to focus on in order to meet young children's emerging needs.
While investing in exciting, challenging fixed play equipment will undoubtedly encourage active play, supporting the development of children's agility doesn't have to be expensive or complicated:
- Provide irresistible loose parts resources (natural materials such as log slices are particularly tempting) which will entice children to touch, test and transport and construct.
- Devise temporary agility courses to test children of all abilities: space log slices at different distances apart; skipping ropes to balance along; use equipment such as hoops, boxes and tunnels to encourage children to combine motor skills.
- Use favourite stories to encourage movement; act out stories such as We're Going on a Bear Hunt and Little Red Hen, making use of the whole space to tell the tale and the whole body to mirror the motions.
- Create cosy, attractive places where babies can enjoy tummy time and use their whole bodies to begin to explore textures and sounds.
- Incorporate different levels and multi-textured surfaces that require concentration and practice to master. Risk and challenge are important for many aspects of children's healthy development, not least their physical agility.
CASE STUDY: WINDMILL INTEGRATED PRIMARY SCHOOL, TYRONE
At Windmill Integrated Primary School, in Tyrone, Northern Ireland, the nursery's motto (borrowed from Victorian art critic John Ruskin) drives the delivery of a rich and varied early years curriculum, and states that 'there is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather'.
Nursery teacher Kierna Corr has been shaping the outdoor environment over 12 years and pays particular attention to the physical development of her three and four-year-olds.
In the past six years she and her team have created risky play opportunities that demand concentration and agility.
The space is is fluid and well resourced, with adults responding to children's diverse needs and using loose parts such as tyres, blocks and logs to increase or decrease the degree of challenge available.
'Staff understand that if children can get up, they can get down,' says Ms Corr, adding that 'rather than intervening and lifting children away from physically challenging situations, we will talk them up and talk them down. This gives our children the confidence to transfer their skills to other environments.'
Children at Windmill also make regular trips to Forest School, where they are encouraged to test their agility in an unpredictable natural environment. Adults support each child's explorations, providing reassurance and participating in the activity.
Ms Corr says, 'I'm always delighted to see children who started the year by crawling along our milk crates, dancing and leaping on them by the end of the year.
Our curriculum includes opportunities for children to become more agile though playful interactions with each other, with us as adults and with the natural environment.'
- Marjorie Ouvry's book, Exercising Muscles and Minds, offers an excellent, and accessible, overview of the connection between movement and neurological development in the early years (NCB 2003)
- Revisit Clare Crowther's Prime Time - under-threes ... physical development (http://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/1139915)
- Learning through Landscapes' Playnotes on Adventurous Play includes cases studies and ideas for creating spaces that will boost agility: http://tinyurl.com/LTL-Playnotes