Most of us remember learning about the five senses, but there are actually many more. 7 in particular are critical to early learning—the familiar five, plus two "hidden" senses that involve movement, called proprioception and the vestibular system. Activating these two hidden senses supports kids’ balance and spatial awareness and helps kids feel focused, alert and ready to learn. The more chances kids have to activate their muscles and move their bodies and heads in different ways, the more input these important hidden senses receive.
One of our favorite ways to activate kids' proprioception and the vestibular system through movement is with an obstacle course. And who better to provide inspiration than creatures from the animal kingdom who hop, crawl, spin, jump, slither and more? With printable animal obstacle course cards for inspiration, it's easy to set out a few simple objects and try the ideas below to create your own animal-inspired obstacle course at home.
Prep and gather materials.
Print and cut out these animal-inspired obstacle course cards for some creature-inspired ideas (as featured in our Tinkergarten Anywhere lesson). Then, find a spot with plenty of room to move outside (or inside). Gather a variety of household items (buckets, bean bags, blanket, rope) and/or objects from nature (logs, nature treasures, rocks) that kids can use for their course.
Or take inspiration from a book.
Watch the video read aloud of Move! By Robin Page. Try out some of the marvelous ways that different animals move their bodies to get from place to place. Ask kids, “Would you like to set up some challenges to see how we can move our bodies?”
Set up a “course.”
Work with your child to place the materials you gathered around your outdoor space to set up a series of physical challenges. For younger kids, you can set up the course for them to “discover.” Older kids will often enjoy the process of designing the course itself. As you set up physical challenges, aim to include one of each of the following:
Something to weave their body in and out of (e.g. bean bags, rocks, pillows, books, buckets)
Something to balance on (e.g. upside down buckets, uneven rocks, stack of books, a log)
Something to walk along (e.g. coil of rope, stretched out ribbon, strip of tape, row of pillows, line of coins, line of rocks)
Something to jump onto (e.g. blanket, bed sheet or tarp)
Any open space to move, roll and crawl
Get to know your obstacle course.
Welcome kids to explore the obstacles you set up together (older kids can set up their own courses, then invite you to try them, too). As kids explore, you can prompt them to wonder things like, How many different ways can you move your heads and bodies as you move through the course? Weave your body in and out of objects on the ground. Walk along a rope. Leap or jump onto a blanket. Can you walk on top of objects and try to keep your balance?
Introduce the animal cards.
Lay out your animal cards with the images right side up. Wonder, “Do you think we could move through these obstacles like some of these animals?” Invite kids to pick an animal card, then read a bit about how the animal moves from the back of the card. How might you move through some of your obstacles like that animal? As feels supportive, model or suggest some of the ideas on the back of the card.
Move like creatures.
Enjoy moving like the animal together. Notice aloud when and how kids are moving their bodies and heads in different positions. How does it feel to move their body in this way?
Leave the course open for play.
If you can, leave the space set up with objects so kids can return to the obstacle challenges and/or continue to invent new challenges on their own.
Invite kids to continue choosing the animal cards that spark the most joy for them. If kids are ready for more, try out some of these ways to extend play:
Repeat! If kids love working through the obstacles, invite them to try it again. Can they do the challenge faster this time? Offer some of the additional challenges and modifications from the cards to try a different approach to each obstacle.
Add props: The addition of a simple prop or costume can boost imaginative play and inspire kids to go deeper with their movements. Use twine to tie a sock or piece of fabric around the waist to make a squirrel tail. Turn a toilet paper roll and a piece of twine into a flamingo or chicken beak. Or, try out some of these ways to create simple props that will inspire creature play.
Create your own animal-inspired challenges: What other animals might you be able to move like? How would those animals approach the obstacles you have laid out?
Add to your course: Rearrange your materials or gather additional ones to make new obstacles.
Barefoot sensory walk: As an additional challenge, set out a series of low storage bins or cookie sheets filled with various sensory materials (e.g. water, mud, dry soil, sand, leaves). How does it feel to walk through the materials with bare feet? On all fours? What sounds do the materials make?
Why is this activity great for kids?
As kids move their bodies and heads in different ways throughout the course, they activate their vestibular and proprioceptive senses, the senses responsible for balance, coordination and focus. Plus, fun, physical challenges are marvelous ways to give kids practice with persistence and grit, creativity and problem-solving skills. And, pretending to be other creatures is a super way to nurture an appreciation for animals and empathic thinking.
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By creativity, we mean the ability to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and actually do what needs to be done to make them happen. So, to help kids develop creativity, we parents need to nurture kids' imaginations and give them lots of chances to design, test, redesign and implement their ideas.
"Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
Why, you ask? For one, it is through being creative that a person is able to get senses, sensibility and spirit working together. Simply put, without creativity, we don't think our kids will live a full life.
On a more practical level, it's also the means by which humans of all ages make an impact on the world and other people around them. A lot of heavy stuff is going to go down in our kids' lifetime, and their generation will need to imagine and implement solutions to big and very complicated problems. Although our kids are still far from public office or the boardroom, today's political and business leaders worldwide are already pointing to creativity as the most important leadership quality for the future.
Although years from the art studio or design lab, little kids can learn to think and act creatively if you give them time and the right practice.
What is an Active Lifestyle?
At the end of the day, there is nothing more important than our kids’ health. From our perspective, children cannot enjoy good health without an active lifestyle that incorporates regular, physical activity as well as time spent in nature. And, we can only influence how they use their time for a short part of their lives. If we really want to ensure their wellness for the long haul, we need to get our kids hooked on being active outdoors.
Two bits of good news: little kids naturally want to be physically active, and they love to be outdoors. So, the challenge we face is how to make active time outdoors a priority in our lives and how to teach our kids to do the same. Understandably, this is increasingly challenging in a culture that imposes so many schedules and structures around kids time. And it is all the more important when kids spend the majority of their waking hours indoors, staring at a screen, or living in communities in which the green spaces are fewer and more restricted than ever before.
Why does it matter?
Research in the past 25 years has confirmed a link between physical activity that takes place outdoors and positive health outcomes. Also, it has drawn an association between an indoor, sedentary lifestyle and negative health consequences. For young children, time to play, ramble and explore outdoors leads to the most extensive and lasting benefits—more than adult-led, structured outdoor activities like organized sports.
Perhaps the two most common issues in children’s health to which a lack of outdoor, physical activity contribute are childhood obesity and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]). Beyond the millions of overweight children, obesity rates have doubled for children (ages 6-11) and tripled for adolescents (ages 12-19) in just two decades. The number of children diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD continues to rise, and ADHD results in significant impairment to children socially and academically.
Studies have shown that lifestyles learned as children are much more likely to stay with a person into adulthood. For example, 70% of teens who are obese grow up to be obese adults. On the flip side, if physical activities and time spent outdoors are a family priority, they will provide children and parents with a strong foundation for a lifetime of health.
What is Sensory Development?
Although some scientists classify as many as 20 senses, when childhood educators talk about "developing the senses," we typically mean developing the five standard senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. In addition to honing these senses, educators care about sensory integration, which is the ability to take in, sort out, process and make use of information gathered from the world around us via the senses.
Why does it matter?
The better kids are able to tune and integrate their senses, the more they can learn. First, if their senses are sharper, the information kids can gather should be of greater quantity and quality, making their understanding of the world more sophisticated. Further, until the lower levels of the brain can efficiently and accurately sort out information gathered through the senses, the higher levels cannot begin to develop thinking and organization skills kids need to succeed. Senses also have a powerful connection to memory. Children (and adults) often retain new learning when the senses are an active part of the learning.
So, if kids have more sensory experiences, they will learn more, retain better and be better able to think at a higher level. Makes the days they get all wet and dirty in the sandbox seem better, doesn't it?