Important ways to help your child through physical challenges brought on by the pandemic

We’re a week into the (nearly) full return to school here at Brighton College Al Ain. We’ve see smiling faces and heard laughter in the corridors and on the playgrounds for the first time in months and immediately you can see, hear and feel just how important it is that the children in our community have face to face schooling as much as possible.

There are, however, some very obvious signs that the impact of the COVID-19 will linger long past the return of our pupils to school. With the risk of a case hanging over all of us still, the social distancing, sanitation of facilities and the wearing of masks in all situations will continue for some time yet, but looking deeper there are other, arguably more pressing issues we need to address as a community. 

Our children have lived through a year in which their way of life has been disrupted like never before. The classroom was replaced by the computer screen, the playground by the dining room table and the opportunity for exercise and activity became limited to the garden or backyard and as much as we have all tried to keep our children active, the restrictions on them have meant that activity levels across the city have dropped in a way that will need a focused period of attention to help them recover.

What do we mean when we talk about physical activity?

Sport England classifies “Sport and Physical Activity” as any activity that can provide a young person with the opportunity to exercise at moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes at a time.

It doesn’t always mean organised sport, but includes recreational activity such as walking, scooting, playing in a playground or just being outside and active. Anything we can provide as parents, teachers and carers that gets children moving and working cardiovascularly has a positive health benefit.

Why is this important?

Alongside the obvious physical health benefits of regular, moderate to intense physical activity there are a wide and varied range of important mental, social, emotional and developmental benefits to good health. Even in the short time we have been back in college we have noticed a significant regression in pupils fine and gross motor skills.

Fine motor skills are the ability to use the small muscles in our hands and wrists and are important for everyday actions such as writing, manipulating objects and undertaking daily tasks such as brushing our teeth. The ability to make small and precise movements is a key skill that is developed in early childhood and improved throughout the growth period. Much work in schools depends on childrens development of these fine motor skills

Gross motor skills are movements made by the large muscle groups in the arms, legs and torso and are key to our ability to function as humans in an active and physical way. Walking, jumping, sitting and standing are all examples of gross motor skills that we develop as children and rely heavily on muscular strength and stamina to perform.

The impact on the development of these motor skills often manifests itself in changes in behaviour as well as reduction in physical abilities. We are seeing children struggle to write with a pen or pencil without getting fatigue in their wrists. We are seeing children with less energy struggling to carry their school bags or stand up for periods of time. These are all clear impacts of the regression of motor skills, mainly through lack of opportunity to practice them. Combined with the reduction in opportunity to exercise this will have had an impact on pupils and children that although not necessarily immediately obvious, can be seen when you observe the children over a longer period of time.

So what can schools do about this?

Schools across the world are key developers of fine and gross motor skills. Often tasks that have no direct, explicit link to physical development will in fact be having a positive maturational effect on a child’s motor skills. Painting in art, holding a recorder in music or catching a ball in PE are all, indirectly, developing a child’s fine motor skills, coordination and hand to eye control. Likewise moving from classroom to classroom, or movement around a classroom, changing seats to work with others, will all have a positive impact on the formation of gross motor skills. At Brighton College the PE department are specifically looking and observing the progress or regression of pupils fine and gross motor skills and working with the SEN department to address any specific issues in individual children. Schools across the world will be looking for these same indicators and working to address them as we move children back to age appropriate levels of development.

What can I do to help my child

The biggest single things we can all do as parents is support the opportunity for physical activity. As suggested by Sport England, this does not have to be structured sporting activity. Giving children the opportunity to play will all have significant benefits. Climbing on play equipment helps establish control over hands, feed and arms, in turn growing physical strength that will aid the performance of fine motor skills. Letting children run, jump, scoot, cycle and swim will all have positive implications for their physical development, giving them the foundation of strength required to perform everyday tasks without getting tired quickly.

What else will being active help with?

Alongside physical development and recover of fitness levels, helping our children be active again will have far reaching positive benefits to other aspects of their lives. Children, just like adults, are social beings and as such need to interact with others in order to develop the social and communicative skills required to be successful in adult life. Children need friends to talk to, play with and interactive with. Whilst this happens naturally in school settings, it is in a much more structured environment and often the opportunity to engage socially outside of school has more positive benefits. We have observed that the social skills in children at Brighton has been limited as a result of such a long time away from each other. This will recover as children have an amazing ability to engage with each other, however any opportunity we can give our children to interact with others, will have a positive impact.

Our children have been confined in a way that is totally alien to them. Even the most committed of parents have struggled to keep providing the opportunities their children need to be active, positive and happy at all times. This in turn has led to a reduction in our children’s opportunity to be confident. Confidence is a vital human trait that is hard to develop and very easy to damage. It comes from being challenged and achieving success and as such we must provide our children with the opportunity to try things, sometimes fail, sometimes be successful and grow in their emotional and social confidence. The more we can provide opportunities for children to have new experiences and to continue to master the skills and activities they practice, the quicker their confidence will return. Confidence is vitally important as it will empower children to take risks, to try new things and deal with challenges. Challenges that inevitably we are going to face in the coming months as life returns to normal.

What can I do if I want to know more?

Your child’s school is the obvious starting point. They should be monitoring and observing the impact of the past 12 months on individual children in their care. At Brighton College we have identified a key set of indicators that can tell us whether a child has been impacted negatively by their distance learning and have developed a set of interventions that can help to return each pupil to their natural developmental path. Much of this is about the individual child and there is certainly no “one size fits all” approach to it. If you have identified any strange or concerning changes in your child’s physical, emotional or social development then speak to their teachers, or the PE and SEN department at their school and work with them to formulate a home/school plan to help address it. What is most important to remember is that every child has an amazing capacity to cope with change and find positives in things. With our support all the children of Al Ain will recover from any impact of the last 12 months and soon be back to their active, social, successful selves.

Phil Mathe – Director of Sport at Brighton College in the UAE.

Phil has worked in schools across three continents. A passionate advocate of physical literacy and pupil wellbeing Phil has written extensively on the subject of physical education as a driver for personal growth, self-confidence and wellbeing in schools. He is also interested in research based education and reflective development.