For young children, playing and being physically active is about more than just staying healthy—it’s a crucial part of their learning and overall development. But developing the perceptual motor skills necessary to master movement and explore the world around them takes time and practice.
From learning about the different parts of their body and how they move to developing hand-eye and foot-eye coordination to understanding ideas like sound and speed, there’s a lot for young children to master so they can safely navigate new environments and interact with objects and their peers.
What are perceptual motor skills?
Perceptual motor skills are the abilities children develop through their senses that allow them to move and interact with their environment. They allow children to perceive how their bodies move and how much force to apply in particular situations. With perceptual motor skills, children can sit up without falling over, close a door with the right amount of force, develop handwriting, and play carefully with others.
As opposed to gross motor skills, which are the large, physical actions that define movement (such as crawling, running, or jumping), perceptual motor skills rely on sensory-based concepts like timing, coordination, and spatial awareness to make movement safe and successful.
Why is perceptual development important?
Mastering perceptual motor skills sets a foundation for children to be more active during day-to-day activities independently. The process of perceptual motor development involves the brain’s ability to plan and make simple or complex decisions. These decisions make simple tasks like eating or dancing possible and allow for more difficult tasks like catching a ball or riding a bike.
While some perceptual motor skills develop naturally, such as body awareness that occurs when a baby first notices their hands and their ability to grasp objects, it’s important to provide opportunities for young children to practice and further develop these skills at home or in the classroom. As children develop better coordination and movement, they’re more likely to engage in active games and have more confidence when interacting with their peers in an active setting.
Perceptual motor skills activities for preschoolers
The natural process of learning new movements occurs through exploration, but by incorporating specific games or activities in your lessons, you can help children improve their perceptual motor skills like temporal awareness, body awareness, and spatial awareness. Track your children’s progress and share learning milestones with families with a tool like brightwheel’s daily activity report feature.
Temporal awareness is the development of an internal timing structure that allows us to recognize the relationship between time and movement. When temporal awareness is strongly developed in children, they can understand the rhythms of life and recognize patterns, such as the differences between day and night or playtime and bedtime. It’s also a crucial factor in developing hand-eye and foot-eye coordination.
Here are a few activities you can try to help your children improve their temporal awareness.
Throwing or kicking a ball
One of the best and most common ways to practice hand-eye coordination is tossing (or rolling) a ball to your child and having them catch it and send it back. It’s important to use age-appropriate balls; you can alternate between balls of different sizes as children’s abilities improve.
Playing with balloons
Having a balloon toss is a simple and fun way to help children improve their hand-eye coordination. It requires movement and fast thinking as children use their eyes, hands, and feet to keep the balloon in the air for as long as possible.
Dancing to music
The simplest way to enhance temporal awareness is through free-expression dance or by teaching specific steps to a particular dance. Allowing children to move their entire bodies in response to music is the most natural way to incorporate rhythm and timing into your lessons. Add in an extra challenge by having children freeze whenever the music stops.
Body awareness is an understanding of the various parts of the human body, what they can do, and how they relate to other body parts. Mastering body awareness allows children to understand the basic joints and muscles responsible for specific movements to better focus on what parts of the body are needed to perform certain tasks.
Here are a few activities you can try to help your children improve their body awareness.
This classic game is a great way to incorporate the “I do, we do, you do” teaching strategy. Start by pointing to different parts of the body and teaching children their names, then practice together. Once children understand, have a leader call out directions for children to follow whenever “Simon says.” For example, you can say, “Simon says touch your nose with your finger,” or “Simon says open your mouth.”
Blow bubbles and encourage your children to chase, catch, clap, and pop them. Challenge them to think about where their body is in the space and avoid bumping into furniture or other children as they move around.
Follow the leader
Much like “Simon Says,” having children mimic the actions of a “leader” is a great way to practice movement and mobility. The leader could do jumping jacks, spin around, clap their hands, or do any number of other movements. Appoint a leader, have children line up behind them, and copy whatever action the leader does.
Spatial awareness is the ability to understand how our bodies are oriented in our environment and how much space we occupy. For children, developing spatial awareness is important as it gives them an understanding of concepts like personal space, how to behave indoors versus outdoors, and when spaces are safe or restricted.
Here are a few activities you can try to help your children improve their spatial awareness.
Fitting puzzles together is a simple and fun way to teach children how pieces of different shapes and sizes fit into corresponding spaces. They also provide practice in problem-solving as children recreate patterns and try to imagine how the pieces connect.
Play the airplane game
Have your children pretend to be airplanes by spreading out their arms and “flying” around the space they’re in. The key here is to encourage them to avoid bumping into other children—this will help them begin to understand concepts of restricted or personal spaces.
Try an obstacle course
Creating an age-appropriate obstacle course is another fun and active way to teach children about interacting with the space around them. For preschool children, have them walk around cones or over small objects without touching them to build awareness of their body and the space it’s occupying.
Developing strong perceptual motor skills is a key factor in children’s ability to move safely and confidently in the world around them. Whether enabling them to perform certain tasks independently or allowing them to interact with their peers, these skills are vital in helping children develop important connections between their minds and bodies, which opens up new opportunities and experiences for them to continue learning as they grow.