Perceptual motor skills can be broken down in to two parts. The first is the ability to gather information from one of more senses and then the second is how to use this information in combination with movement to achieve a specific goal. Learning these skills can take place with children between the ages of 2 and 7 in tandem with the development of FMS (Sherrill, 2004) and FMP.
Children’s understanding of their bodies and how everything works together improves over time. Several factors can influence the development of perceptual motor skills including; the volume of practice, feedback, the quality of coaching and the environment in which the practice takes place (Gallahue & Ozmun, 2006). Developing these skills in children’s martial arts classes requires the coach to design games and drills that combine basic motor skills with one or more sensory elements. Building perceptual motor skills allows children to put their motor skills to use in different scenarios to achieve different goals. Not just in their martial arts classes, but in other activities too.
Perceptual motor skills 1 - BODY AWARENESS
This is an understanding of the parts of the body and the various ways they can move. A good example of this is when you ask the students to point their feet but pull their toes back in order to perform a front kick. Although children start developing an awareness of their body from the age of 2 (Elena et al., 2014), is can be tough for a 3 year old to form the foot shape required to strike the pad with the ball of their foot. This shouldn’t be too difficult for a 5 or 6 year old with a little practice. Another example relevant to martial arts is when we ask the children to form a fist to punch a pad. Even showing them a tight fist while describing it may not be enough for them to successfully copy it. One of the most common issues I come across with the younger students is the movement for a round elbow. Often, they want to hit the pad with the back of their elbow even after watching several demonstrations. It takes a little time for them to understand how to replicate the motion required and some time you have to physically move their arm in the motion first.
Perceptual motor skills 2 - VISUAL AWARENESS
This is the ability to visually focus, track objects, and take in the broader field of view so they can build an awareness of what is happening in the immediate vicinity. Visual awareness enables the children to coordinate body movements with what their eyes see. This awareness is probably one of the most used when developing martial arts specific skills such as blocking, kicking and striking objects. As well as blocking and striking objects, games that include throwing and catching objects of different sizes and materials will help create a varied stimulus for which students can adapt their skills.
As the older students develop their visual awareness you will be able to change the speed and trajectory in which the stimulus. Don’t be surprised if the children under 6 struggle to judge distance and direction accurately as the eyeball does not achieve its regular round shape until the ages of 6-9 year old. Until this point, they may have trouble tacking and following moving objects. As with most other skills though, following and tracking objects can be improved through training. We tend to work on throwing with all ages in our children’s martial arts classes but if we are working on catching with the younger (3-4 years) students, we throw a bigger object (usually a foam ball) which is easier to catch.
Perceptual motor skills 3 - SPATIAL AWARENESS
This can be described as the sense of how much space one’s body occupies and the ability to move comfortably around other objects and people. If you have taught this age group before you will understand that bumping in to things and each other are just part of their development. In fact, we seem to have at least one child a year run in to one of the walls in our training room. We purposely put our mats in a frame so the mats don’t fit all the way up to the wall to discourage the children from getting too close to the walls. At a later date we may consider matting the walls but from past experience of having a couple of crash mats fastened to one of our walls, this can actually encourage them to run in to the wall.
Young children just don’t have a good understanding of their body’s dimensions in relation to other people and objects. It’s like when you get a new car or drive someone else’s car. Until you have driven it for a sustained length of time, it’s hard to judge how much space you have when reverse parking in the supermarket carpark.Don’t forget that the children re quite new to their bodies and haven’t quite mastered what they can and can’t do yet.
You can start off by developing this awareness with static objects (like running around cones) before moving on to more advanced forms. You can then incorporate these movements into drills and games that include various levels of collision avoidance. The 3-4 year olds tend to start by moving around / under / over static objects or other students that are moving around the room slowly. For the 5-6 year olds we then introduce invasion based games and drills that intentionally create an environment where avoiding collisions is a little harder.
Perceptual motor skills 4 - TEMPORAL AWARENESS
This the ability to develop a sense of internal timing. Temporal awareness is also an essential component in the development of good eye to hand or eye to foot coordination. The ability to predict how quickly an object will arrive or pass by will be a valuable skill as the child progresses from you’re young children’s programme (3-6 years) into your primary school aged programme (6-11 years). Exercises that alternate between slow, fast and rhythmic speeds can help children recognise and compensate for the differences between speeds.
Games that create an opportunity for students to intercept a moving object will improve their proficiency in developing good timing. A good example for the younger children is rolling a gym ball past them and instructing them to kick it as it goes past. You could also do a similar exercise with a balloon and eye to hand coordination where they have to hit the balloon with their hand from one end of the room to the other. After an initial strike the balloon’s movement slows at quite a consistent speed. This creates an opportunity for the child try and time the next hit before the balloon stops moving altogether.
While the use of agility ladders are often rubbished in high performance circles due to their lack of specificity, the repetitive, rhythmic movements can help children build their temporal awareness. If you can make some of these movements match those performed in your martial art, all the better.
Perceptual motor skills 5 - DIRECTIONAL AWARENESS
Directional awareness is not just the ability to differentiate between the left and right sides (laterality) of the body but the understanding of what it means to move forward / backwards, up / down and sideways (directionality). Adding a visual stimulus to trigger specific movements can add a level of complexity that maybe a little much for the 3-4 year olds to start with, so try to keep things simple to start with and hold off adding complexity until they have the basics down. Don’t forget that children will also be learning how to identify the top / bottom and front / back of objects too.
While single instructions to move forwards, backwards or sideways like a crab will be relatable to the 3-4 year olds, games that emphasise movement in different directions are a great way to combine exercise with directional movement for the 5-6 year old.
Perceptual motor skills 6 - AUDITORY AWARENESS
This ability to accurately interpret and respond to sound. Everyone has a different sensitivity to sound / noise. When I was studying for my BSc and MSc in Sports Coaching at University, my favourite way of getting ‘Deep work’ done was to isolate myself in the 24 lab above the library, put my earbuds in and play some non vocal trance music. This was my way of blocking out any back ground noise, allowing me to fully focus on the task at hand. I am pretty sensitive to background noise and subsequently, not very productive in shared spaces. Even now the best time for me to write is late at night when everyone else has gone to bed.
Just as I struggle to process information in a space with my two year old daughters doll singing away and the TV on in the background, your students can also sometimes be distracted by background noise created by the other students. It maybe that they are not listening or not paying attention but often they are not making this choice as a conscious decision.
Perceptual motor skills 7 - TACTILE AWARENESS
The sense of touch is delivered by our tactile system. The receptors cells on our skin throughout our body relay information such as pressure, texture, vibration, temperature and pain to our brain. This system also gives us the ability to differentiate between objects by size, texture and shape. Basically, the difference between how objects feel. The tactile system is also an essential ingredient to enable our students to manipulate objects and later on someone else’s body parts. As they advance through your martial arts programmes, tactile awareness will be a contributing factor in the level of control they achieve. This will obviously be important to ensure the students don’t hurt each other.