Tennis, and sport in general, is a great way to help children develop their motor skills.
Kids between the ages of 3 and 5 years are starting to develop their gross motor skills and enjoy a wide variety of activities. Gross motor skills are a specific set of skills that involve different body parts such as feet, legs, trunk, head, arms, and hands. These skills are important because they are the “building blocks” or foundation movements for more complex and specialized skills required by children throughout their lives to competently and confidently play different games, sports, and recreational activities.
Recently I was reading an article on the www.greatplay.com website and thoughts I would share it with our parents who have young children. While your child my to not yet be old enough to play real tennis, there are so many activities which they can be doing to aid their development (and have fun). Vida Tennis has a similar philosophy to their “Great Play Approach: We start each class with skill development, to encourage proper technique; then we coach Players throughout the class through “directed play” to help ensure proper form is being learned.”
How Children Learn Motor Skills
Physical development consists of two major components: physical fitness and motor skill development. Physical fitness includes strength, endurance, flexibility and body composition. Motor skills include locomotion (running, walking, jumping, hopping), manipulation (throwing, kicking, catching, bouncing), and stability (bending, twisting, rolling, dodging).
Mastery of a range of motor skills, combined with good overall physical fitness, is critical to the healthy development of a child and forms the basis of their athletic competence.
Great Play helps each Player reach his or her full physical potential by building a broad-based foundation of skill, fitness and confidence that will last a lifetime.
The Science of Learning Motor Skills
To perform a task or movement, our brain sends signals to our motor units (individual nerves and collections of muscle fibers) at precise intervals to orchestrate the contraction of muscles throughout our body.
Learning a motor skill is like writing a computer program to a disk – the program, imprinted on the brain, plays back as a motor reflex. The method of imprinting a motor skill “program” on the brain is repetition (i.e., “practice, practice, practice”).
Over time, basic motor skills can be combined and built upon to master more complex skills.
Implications for Teaching Motor Skills
There are several implications for learning, based on the way our bodies acquire new motor skills. To achieve the greatest success, children should:
- Start with proper form or technique
- Get plenty of touch time (repetitions) to “program” their mind and body with the technique
- Build up from a solid base of fundamental skills to the more complex skills over time, seizing key developmental windows
Using Proper Technique
Learning a skill improperly is, in many ways, worse than not learning it at all. Instructors of complex motor skill sports, like golf, tennis, skiing, baseball, etc., often describe having to get new students to “unlearn” their current technique in order to improve – or taking a step back in order to take a step forward.
Starting off with proper form is essential, particularly for the foundation skills that form the basis for the complex skills children need to learn later. Practice doesn’t make perfect, “perfect practices makes perfect.”
Getting Plenty of Touch Time
Movement skills become ingrained in “muscle memory” through repetition. Children cannot master motor skills by watching or listening or standing around while others get their turn. They master them by doing – over and over and over again. Proper technique, repeated extensively, leads to mastery over time.
Great Play Approach: Our games are designed to maximize touch time and the ability to explore and master new skills. We also encourage learning to continue outside of the Arena, with parents and friends.
Building Skills During Key Developmental Windows
Just as the brain is ready for certain types of academic material (e.g., reading, counting or foreign languages) at certain stages, so too are the mind and body ready to learn certain kinds of motor skills and make different types of physical adaptations at certain ages.
Children need to build a strong foundation of fundamental skills in order to be able to learn and perform more complex sports skills as they mature. To achieve full potential, new skills should be consistently introduced when the child is ready to learn them. Introducing new skills too early will lead to failure and can be discouraging. However, missing the opportunity to introduce a skill for which a child is ready can delay or prevent them from ultimately achieving their potential.
As children mature, the fundamental movement skills learned previously are applied as specialized skills in a variety of sports, games, and recreational activities. For example, the fundamental skill of striking an object in an underhand, sidearm, or overarm pattern is progressively refined and later applied in sport and recreational pursuits such as golf, tennis, and baseball.
The Bottom Line
Children who learn proper technique, get plenty of practice, and build up from foundation skills to complex skills at the proper developmental times will be in a good position to reach their full potential, and they will be well on their way to an active life.