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20.02.2017 - Ausgabe: 1/2017

Facing challenges - How children explore and experience their environment

By Prof. Dr Renate Zimmer (Educationalist with the focus on early childhood, Professor for sports science and kinesiology at the University of Osnabrück, Director of the Institute for Early Childhood Education and Development of Lower Saxony)


Children are always looking for new challenges. Instead of just walking on a wide pavement, they find it much more exciting to balance on the narrow kerb. And although it takes a lot of physical strength to climb that wall, it is also a triumphant feeling to manage doing it. Besides, their effort will be rewarded as soon as they stand on the top of the wall and are able to see the world from a different perspective. Stairs and steps invite children to climb and jump. For them it is entirely normal to run up and down repeatedly. While at first they are only taking one step after another, as soon as they feel more secure, they will be taking two steps at once.                             

Why do children never simply bypass puddles, why do they never go round walls or ignore a ball lying around? Persistently they are following their goals and even if they fail, they do not give up until the goal has been met. Even if it is tiring, children normally avoid choosing the simple way, they are looking for challenges. It seems as if overcoming difficulties is what really challenges them. But what is their motivation for such a tireless urge to explore their environment?


Natural curiosity and urge to explore the environment

From birth on, movement and sensory perception play an important role for the entire developmental process. Natural curiosity and mental alertness form the basis for exploring the material environment. As soon as a child is born, he or she is able to build theories. On the basis of their own experiences, children normally verify, reject, confirm or modify these theories. Their learning processes are initiated and organised by the children themselves while they depend on the experience gained. Right from day one, physical activity is the driving force for a child's development.

Early childhood education is based on sensory perception. Children learn how to differentiate their perception skills. This is the starting-point for explorative learning. Based on their experiences, children create expectations, build theories and form ideas and hypotheses. They get an impression of possible relationships and verify the impression by carefully investigating things. That is why from the child's point of view a stairway is not just the connection between different levels. It is rather the basis for numerous opportunities, a place where to try out one's own skills, experience or limits, a training ground for motoric skills and self-education.


Becoming physically active and promoting body awareness

Whenever children are walking, running, climbing, jumping, creeping, sliding, hopping, hanging and swinging, they can experience their movement capacities. They enjoy the sensual "sensations", such as lightness and weight, speed and rhythm, dizziness and balance. This experience of physical activity leads to both the sensitisation of body awareness and to developing confidence in one's own abilities.

Even if the physical activities are tiring and the exercises are difficult, for children they are just a pleasure. The purpose is to experience the present moment. It is here, now and today when children want to gain exciting and eventful experiences. There is no need for rewards. The activity itself is considered to be the reward. Everything that matters is the event of the present moment.


The perception of one's own body

The perception of one's own body is developed by this physical-sensual perception of the material environment and when both physical activity and perception are brought together. It is the result of experiencing, perceiving and becoming aware of one's own body and personality. And it is further developed through the experience gained on the basis of the kinaesthetic (movement) and vestibular (balance) perception as well as through what one feels in one's muscles, tendons and joints and what hence helps children to perceive their body. Thus, children instinctively know how their hands have to grasp towards each other to find safe hold in the branches of a tree, how to move their legs to climb over the branch, how much power they need to hold their own weight on the branch and how to absorb the forces of their body's weight when jumping off that tree or that wall (Zimmer 2016).

These perceptive experiences are at the same time linked with cognitive experiences. How do I have to initiate the jump? Where is the best place for landing? Every movement is anticipated and reflected. Nevertheless, these physical activities also give emotional experience. Do I dare to climb up high into the tree? At which distance will I be able to grab the branch? Do I manage to hold on to these branches? And ... to come down again from the tree?

Sensory, movement, cognitive and emotional experiences keep blending. Thus, the child will always have to decide whether to continue or stop climbing, whether to rely on his or her own strength or to call for help, whether to stick it out or to give up.



According to Stern (2010), human beings perceive themselves and their bodies long before they start talking. Kern says that self-perception is a process of filing and dealing with experiences while dealing with oneself and the environment.

In this context it is of great importance to experience oneself as a self-responsible actor. So for example a child tries to grasp at objects, kicks the blanket away with his legs, swipes at the mobile thus gaining the experience that all effects produced have been initiated by the child himself. Babies often tirelessly carry out one and the same movement and are happy about the effects produced by them while at the same time they become angry if someone tries to keep them from doing so. Self-generated actions cause a proprioceptive kinaesthetic feedback. That is to say that the child can actually feel the results of his actions on his own body, such as knocking down the tower or putting the ball in motion.

To be able to influence the environment, to produce changes by oneself and to have control over a situation has great influence on how human beings perceive and assess their own abilities.


Producing changes by oneself

To produce a change and to see that the results achieved have been produced by one's own actions is one of the most important experiences and the basis for the creation of a self-confident and positive attitude towards oneself and the environment.

This experience, which in technical terms is also known as "self-effectiveness" is to be understood as a person's conviction and subjective experience of feeling competent enough to be able to control a specific situation or not (Zimmer 2012 b).

Especially when children are physically active they experience that they are able to cause specific effects. While they are playing, moving or dealing with objects, they are learning at the same time that they are responsible for the effects produced by their actions. For example when they build a high tower from blocks, they will usually knock it over as soon as it has been finished and start rebuilding it immediately. Children are learning by doing. "I made it. I can do it." This feeling of success forms the basis for a child's future self-confidence regarding any future performance requirements.



Every activity of a child will be influenced by the child's own expectations, that is to say that by self-assessment and self-confidence, children will assess their actions.

In other words, somebody who does not believe in having control over his or her own activities, will hardly be proud of the results achieved. Quite the contrary, in this case, success will be attributed to luck or chance and not to one's own efforts and abilities.

To be convinced of one's self-effectiveness may be more decisive for success than all kinds of objective performance prerequisites. Somebody who trusts in his or her ability to independently cope with a task, will rather believe in being able to handle a certain level of difficulty than somebody who is not very self-confident. To believe in one's self-effectiveness is therefore a very motivating aspect, because somebody who has assessed a certain situation as manageable, will look for similarly challenging situations. Hence one's own competence expectations will also raise one's self-esteem. But, if on the other hand a child has no or low expectations regarding his or her coping skills, he or she will rather avoid such situations which are being perceived as unmanageable. Thus the child avoids the supposed failure, even without having experienced a real disappointment.


Facing challenges

Children are growing with the challenges they face and those they set themselves. To ensure that this succeeds, the following principles will have to be considered:

  • Challenging one's own efforts and self-acting
  • Adaptation of task difficulty and possibilities for action
  • Providing feedback
  • The experience of having control over one's own way of acting

In order to enable children to discover their own strengths, it is important that they cope with as many situations as possible which promote their own efforts, self-acting and which are at the same time a physical challenge. The challenges must be adapted to the children's abilities. The difficulty level should challenge but not overburden them. The children must feel able to live up to the respective task. The abilities needed should be in line with the child's possibilities.

A first very important feedback will be provided through the child's own movements, by their own body. The child detects an ability to hold on to something, and experiences how to stay balanced on the wall by simply moving and using arms and feet. It is the child's own body providing feedback in the form of kinaesthetic awareness (I have made it, I got up the wall), through the awareness of one's own movement sensation.       

Feedback will also be provided by comments, such as verbal feedback from the child's social environment, like carers, parents or teachers. In any case, the feedback provided should always be encouraging, strengthen and support the child's attempts ("It's great how far you have progressed", "It has been very courageous to face this challenge.").

In order to promote a positive attitude towards oneself, it is important for children that they experience the feeling of being able to control their own acting (and thus to be able to control themselves). Hence, they should be given the opportunity to choose the difficulty level themselves (the height of the wall, the method to cope with the situation) and also to choose between the specific options for action.


Developing one's self-concept - an important development task of early childhood

It depends on the self-image with which children identify themselves, if a child has confidence in his or her own abilities or if the child considers them to be low, if he/she actively approaches other people or if he/she is rather critical towards others, if he/she quickly gives up when facing difficulties or rather feels challenged by them.

This self-image is a reflection of both the experience gained when dealing with one's social and material environment and the environment's expectations on the child.

Thus, all human beings in the course of their lifetime develop assumptions about themselves which may obviously be the answer to the question of who one might be. In this context, particular importance is placed on the body experiences gained through physical activities during childhood. Through physical activities children learn to get to know themselves. Their bodies provide them with feedback about what they are able to do or not by real experiences. They experience success and failure and learn that both success and failure have been caused by themselves. Nevertheless, they also experience if the people from their environment have trust in them or not and how they are assessed by them.

These experiences, findings and all this information result in attitudes and beliefs about oneself, which in technical terms is also known as "self-concept".

The development of somebody's self-concept is an important development task of the early childhood. The self-image built at this stage forms the basis for the attitude towards oneself, also in later years (Zimmer 2012 a, Page 15 ff.).

Through their physical activity, children experience that they are able to perform something, to achieve something, that they are able to cause effects with their activities. During early childhood, the effort towards independence is clearly expressed through physical activities. To dress oneself alone, to walk without help, to climb a wall and jump off again - these are physical achievements, which allow both the child (and also parents and carers) to become more and more independent.

In this context, independence means to be able to "stand alone", in the literal and figurative sense.

Thus, especially for children, both the physical and sensory experiences are of utmost importance regarding the process of self-perception and self-awareness.

They have a subjective importance, because through them children learn to assess their abilities and skills whereas the objective importance is related to their influence on the behavioural expectations of the social environment.

The successful management of a task or to overcome an obstacle is more than just a feeling of success for a child. These experiences are triggering feelings of happiness. The idea of such activities is not to get a reward or praise, but lies in the activities themselves.




Stern, Daniel (2010). Die Lebenserfahrung des Säuglings (Life experience of an infant). Stuttgart Klett Cotta

Zimmer, Renate (2012 a). Psychomotorik für Kinder unter drei Jahren (Psychomotricity for children under three years). Freiburg: Herder

Zimmer, Renate (2012 b). Handbuch Psychomotorik. Theorie und Praxis der psychomotorischen Förderung (Handbook of psychomotricity. Theory and practice of promotion through psychomotricity). Freiburg: Herder

Zimmer, Renate (2014) Handbuch der Bewegungserziehung. Grundlagen für Ausbildung und pädagogische Praxis (Handbook of movement education. Bases for trainings and pedagogical practice). Freiburg: Herder

Zimmer, Renate (2016). Handbuch Sinneswahrnehmung. Grundlagen einer ganzheitlichen Erziehung und Bildung (Handbook of sensory perception. Bases for holistic education and formation). Freiburg: Herder


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