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15.12.2016 - Ausgabe: 6/2016

About the important role of challenges and risks - Children need challenging playing areas to promote their development

By Dr Dieter Breithecker (Head of the German Federal Working Group for the Promotion of Posture and Movement in Wiesbaden)


In the classical sense of the term, the expression movement is often associated with sports and physical fitness. Nevertheless, the significance of the word movement includes much more than this. If movement is practised in a playful, self-determined and challenging way, it becomes a fundamental resource. And, “just by the way”, it may significantly contribute to a healthy physical, mental and social development.

Against the background of changing socio-ecological conditions which affect the development of children and youngsters, the following article focuses on the importance of such measures which „particularly promote“ challenging movement opportunities. It must be emphasised that especially children at kindergarten or primary school levels are going through a particularly delicate and critical maturing and development stage. At this stage, both some important biological differentiation processes regarding their physical and mental health are taking place and also some fundamental psycho-social core competencies are developed which significantly influence the child’s future life. In order to promote this important development stage in an optimal way, children need rooms which offer a wide range of challenges instead of boring playing areas.


The right to move

"In former times, children used to move much more than they do today!” Everybody has heard this sentence or even pronounced it. Particularly, the so-called baby boomer generation, in other words, those, who were born between 1955 and 1965, would confirm the following: their everyday life was self-determined, eventful and there was less supervision and control compared with today. The days were filled with joyful activities. Children could be just kids. Because children are naturally curious and want to explore their environment. For them, movement is a basic form to express their joy of life. The physical activity enables children to actively analyse their material and social environment. Children are the conductors of their development. They are naturally strong and have resources which they use in a self-determined and competent way. The great "urge" to move in manifold ways is considered the motor of children’s development. Children do not need any motivation. They already have it and use it wherever a valuable opportunity exists. Taking into account that learning is a self-constructing process, children need an active engagement with their material and social environment to understand and comprehend it. Every movement activity helps them to gain knowledge and leaves its trace, which, in the technical sense means that they are gaining competencies (see Fischer, 2010).

Although the living conditions and the associated conditions of socialisation have changed, there is one thing which has not changed since. Children need to move in a challenging, risky, independent and self-determined way. They need to climb, mount, balance, jump, rock, swing and many other activities. For them, this physical activity means much more than practising sports, performance, competition and burning calories. Above all, for them it is a natural resource which they are using in a joyful and self-determined way whenever there is an exciting opportunity while at the same time the physical activity supports their healthy development. Particularly from this point of view, movement is of increasing importance regarding our children's health, education and development.

Despite these facts and our knowledge, today’s children are growing up under completely over-organised and over-safe conditions. Their activity and movement areas are strongly limited and fragmented. Children have less independent access to natural areas of adventure and experience. Even younger children must cope with an accelerated rhythm of life. This acceleration requires an increasingly organised mobility. As a consequence, children are playing in different living areas which are not at all or only to a small extent functional, which makes the appropriation of space even more difficult (see Monsel 1995, Meier 2012). Thus, many of our children are denied valuable development opportunities.


Movement requires space

The future-oriented motto "gaining competencies instead of increasing knowledge" underlines the importance of learning and development spaces and confirms the often underestimated impact of room as an additional educator (see Abeling/Städtler 2008).

When looking at the original meaning of the word "room" one comes to the Old High German word "Rümi" which means wide and spacious and indicates, in the wider sense of the word, that there is much room, much liberty and opportunity. Nothing stands in the way or restricts physical activity, contact or development. (Textor, M. 2007). Already Maria Montessori (1870 - 1952), the Italian doctor and pedagogue, extensively explained the connection between room design, movement possibilities and mental development of children.

In Reggio pedagogy, room itself plays an important role. "Room as a third educator." Room can be defined as extensive and prepared surroundings, which offer the space, ideas, challenges and the safety and privacy children need for a healthy development". (see Dialog Reggio 2005). Both the challenging character of the room and the possibility of orientation as well as different perspectives and explorative learning should be taken into account when playing areas are designed. These examples of pedagogical reflections show the important interaction between the development of children and the room offer. This is exactly why room is understood as a place of anthropogenesis, which provides appropriate development opportunities for the complex human system.


Movement and education. An inextricable interaction.

In recent years, neuroscience research has intensively studied the effect of room design on structural and functional change processes in the brain. Numerous animal experiments impressively confirm that a so-called enriched environment (containing challenges, movement attractions and contact to conspecifics) promotes the physical, mental and social competencies (i.a. Diamond 1964, Bennet 1964, Sachser 2004, Rittelmeyer, 2002). These research findings show that a multifaceted - however, never chaotic - environment, which offers new and also recurring experiences, leads to a complex wiring at the neural level (synaptogenesis) compared with the effects of a more monotonous environment. The study showed the following changes: on the behavioural level tasks were solved much faster and more target-oriented. In general, the number of errors committed when specific tasks had to be solved was reduced and the behaviour became more exploratory. In the meantime, there is plenty of evidence which shows that the results obtained from animal tests could also be transferred to human beings (Driescher 2011).


(Open) spaces as an additional secret teacher for children

Attractive and challenging rooms help children to gain manifold and extended experiences which characterise the child’s brain and its personality.  (Walk 2011). The nature of wet sand, for instance, seems to invite children to create, form and build something.  A tree trunk lying in the way may lead children to balancing, and a tree to climbing it. (see Laging 2006; Rittelmeyer 2002). Hence, the nature and structure of a room have a significant impact on our behaviour.

Multi-functionally and challenging „designed“ rooms enable children to learn in a target-oriented, but also experimental and open-minded way regarding their future solution behaviour (see Fischer 2010). These findings are based on constructivist didactics which implies that the results of gained knowledge, respectively the exchange between persons and the environment are portrayed in the human brain. Therefore, it is important to provide rooms which offer the possibility to learn in an autonomous and self-determined way and where challenges can be taken on the one hand with a venturesome attitude and on the other hand in a self-confident manner.  


Rooms challenge and motivate children to gain valuable experiences and to test their limits

According to modern pedagogical concepts, it is especially the challenging "movement situations" at the limit of someone's abilities which help to gain core competencies in a playful way. These, in turn, have a positive effect on all aspects of life. "Learn how to take your life into your own hands." "Recognise your strengths and promote them!" "Be self-confident!" "Assume responsibility for what you do!" According to DIN 18034, "safety measures should eliminate as much danger for users as possible while leaving at the same time sufficient freedom which enables children to learn at an early age how to recognise and prevent possible danger and to react appropriately." Children will never gain appropriate knowledge and experience in "standardised" situations without any risks.

Therefore it is of utmost importance for their development that children are able to test their possibilities by looking for challenges and facing them. Experiences, that is to say both success and failure are very important for the overall development progress of a child. According to the pedagogical point of view, this is an essential approach to empower children to assess their own abilities and to be prepared for danger, to evaluate a situation, to learn how to protect themselves and to act in a flexible way in accordance with the specific situation.

Vetter (2004) points out that learning to walk includes the possibility to fall. Just as much as it is difficult to avoid falling from a bike when you learn to ride it, despite of many passive safety measures. As soon as children have reached a certain skill-level, they will automatically look for more difficult and more challenging situations, most probably because they are comparing themselves with other children. The possibility to fail is always there. Through the wide-ranging experience, a child does not only increase its skill-levels but also develop its motion security and ability to act. Positive experiences help children to promote self-efficacy and enable them to develop a positive self-concept.


Risk competence - To take a risk and assume responsibility

Due to the repeated self-assessment in every borderline situation, both the child's ability to protect itself and to assess risks as well as its self-confidence will be promoted in a sustainable manner. The risk starts when the proven behaviour is replaced by tackling new challenges, which both requires and promotes physical, cognitive and psychological skills, especially in the phase of growing up.

The movement area itself is particularly suited to gain more confidence when dealing with risks, because in general, risks may be balanced according to the difficulty presented by the task and the environmental conditions. The level of difficulty can be chosen according to the motor skills and thus one's own limits can be tested. It is immediately clear whether the activity has succeeded or failed. In both cases, the child must learn how to handle the situation in an appropriate way. That is why a "helping hand" of an adult may not always be helpful. On the contrary: it may even hamper the child's development. Although it is the responsibility of adults to supervise their children, it is not their duty to supervise them all the time, but in any case they should prepare the environment in a way that children are able to try out their skills while they are taking manageable risks. Adults should never hinder children from making their own experiences.

With regard to their limits, children have a very good intuition. They are able to assess their capacities realistically. Normally, they only dare to go as far as they are able to go, especially in dangerous situations. Their movements are trained and highly focused. They stop and think in order to re-orient themselves. They go back to find another, more secure and more successful way. If they feel insecure and consider it necessary, they normally turn back. The experience to have come this far helps them to find the necessary courage for the next experiment.

The demand for pedagogically responsible risk situations is at the same time an instruction on how to cope with fears and to promote self-responsibility. Motion security and the closely associated psychological and emotional experiences, such as confidence in one's own abilities, gradually grow as children experience and face challenges.

"At playgrounds, children need the opportunity to expose themselves to risks and to overcome their fears", also says Ellen Sandseter (2001). In her opinion, boring playgrounds are bad for children and may even hamper their emotional development. Because according to her, children need an exciting confrontation with height and speed in order to overcome later fears. Anyone who has ever been at a playground and watched children playing, knows what the scientists are talking about. There, even the youngest are climbing fearlessly to dizzying heights or they are swinging in such a wild way that their parents just gasp.


Requirements for development friendly (learning) areas

The changing living conditions for children require an appropriate reaction at different levels of society. Children need the opportunity to acquire valuable life experiences by their own doing. Even today, our environment offers many movement opportunities (green open spaces and playgrounds, nearby forests, school routes etc.) which obviously need to be discovered and experienced.

The length of time children spend at the kindergarten and at school has steadily increased in recent years. Against this background, we find it even more important that all "artificially" installed playing areas at kindergartens and schools and also those intended for recreational purposes, must meet the development needs of children in an as optimal way as possible. For this reason, the German Federal Working Group for the Promotion of Posture and Movement is committed to ensure an appropriate design of playing areas, in which children, inter alia,

  • are allowed to explore,  try out, discover, design and experiment with new things in a playful way;
  • act out their urge to move and their basic activities such as climbing, balancing, hanging, jumping while they are exploring their own limits;
  • and hence develop their core competencies such as risk assessment, self-confidence and self-protection while they are dealing with harmless risks;
  • apply their imagination and find their own solutions;
  • move themselves instead of being moved by others;
  • hence develop physical, mental and psycho-social protection factors which are the basis for their healthy development and well-being.



Despite of the permanent sitting associated with playing computer games and surfing the Internet, there is hardly anything nicer for children than playing and moving around. Through the creation of movement opportunities, which consider the children's needs, adults can create an important basis for children, which helps them to go through life in a straight, responsible and self-confident way.


You will find further information at: www.haltungbewegung.de / www.einfachbewegen.de



Picture: Dieter Breithecker / Seilfabrik Ullmann

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