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17.02.2021 - Ausgabe: 1/2021

Discovering one's own potential through physical activity - An important developmental issue in the first years of life

By Prof. Dr. Renate Zimmer (Universität Osnabrück)

© Hags-mb-Spielidee GmbH

To move means to progress – in a literal and figurative sense. From crawling to standing up, standing and walking - step by step, the child's range of motion expands and with it the space of experience. In the first years of life, movement is the most important means for children to gain experience about themselves, but also about their social, spatial and material environment. Through physical activity, children learn about the nature of their environment, about things and objects and their specific properties - this knowledge is closely linked to movement. Only through movement they can get an idea of when, why and how a ball bounces, rolls or flies and how they can influence this through their own actions. Movement is thus an important medium for experiencing and appropriating reality. Through their bodies, children make fundamental cognitive, but also social and emotional experiences. 


Gaining confidence in one's own abilities

 "Will I make the jump over the ditch - or will I not?" "Do I dare to climb up the slide - or would I rather stay down?" Whether a child feels rather strong or rather weak, whether it has confidence in its abilities, whether it gives up quickly when faced with difficulties or feels downright challenged by them - all this depends on the image the child has of itself. 

This image is formed through the experiences that the child gains about its body in the first years of life. It experiences ability and inability, success and failure, its capabilities and its limits. 

Through their physical activities, children experience that they themselves are able to achieve something, to accomplish a work, that they can make a difference with their actions. Already in infancy, the effort to become independent is most clearly expressed in actions of movement. Getting dressed by themselves, walking without help, climbing a wall and jumping down again - these are physical achievements that gradually demonstrate the child (and also their parents and caregivers) their increasing independence. Independence means first of all "being able to stand by oneself", in the literal and figurative sense.


Being able to make a difference yourself

Especially when they become physically active, children experience that they are the originators of effects, that they can make a difference. Setting a toy car in motion, pushing a balloon into the air, pushing a buggy - this is much more fun and exciting than sitting in it and being pushed. In dealing with things, play situations and movement tasks, they evoke an effect and lead it back to themselves. For example, they build a high tower out of blocks and then immediately knock it down again - only to build it up again afterwards. They associate the result of the action with their own effort, their own ability - and so an initial idea of their own abilities emerges. They learn by experimenting and trying things out: I have hit the goal with the ball, have knocked over the cone, have rebuilt the tower. I can do it! This experience is the prerequisite for not giving up immediately when difficulties arise and for feeling up to future challenges. 

Positive movement experiences, experiencing one's own effectiveness can help children build a realistic and at the same time confident self-image.  It is in this way, how they develop the prerequisites for self-confidence and self-esteem (Zimmer 2019b). 


Experiencing ability - experiencing oneself as competent

Having achieved something gives us the feeling of having control over our own situation, of being responsible for the observable effects: The wall is conquered, on the swing I can swing up to the sky... These experiences lead to both happiness, and also to an awareness of one's own abilities. The feeling arises of having control over the situation and of having competences. They form the basis for a positive attitude towards life: not being helplessly at the mercy of fate, but being able to do something oneself. The child can control the result of its actions, it can attribute the effect of the actions to itself. 

The more opportunities children have to explore and investigate their environment, the more situations they will be able to "master". An anxious, insecure child does not dare to tackle new, unknown tasks without further ado; they rather tend to retreat to what they know, what they are familiar with. They are less confident about what they can really cope with. For these children in particular, it is important that they receive encouragement from their caregivers, that they are motivated to discover their own potential, that they experience skills in order to strengthen their self-esteem. 

Every successful action, on the other hand, challenges the child to new deeds. In this way, an active, curious child who feels safe will be more likely to get involved in unknown situations, to dare something, to try something out, and to enjoy the wonderful feeling of having achieved something independently. 


Learning through trial and error

Children learn about their physical and spatial environment through physical activity. Objects are tried out, their properties explored, their laws recognised. 

Even toddlers like to experiment with things and try out their laws. For example, the baby in the high chair: it drops everything that comes within its reach onto the floor. Of course, in this game someone is needed to pick the things up again and give them back to the child - so that they land right back on the floor. You might think that the baby wants to tease you. But it has just set up a highly interesting series of experiments called: Everything falls down. And all things make different sounds: the biscuit, the rattle, the ball. An experiment thrives on repetition. The child has to check again and again whether the law is really true. Adults are needed to participate in this game, to take part in the attempts to discover the world and to understand how it works. 

Moving also means devising strategies to solve problems: Finding out how to keep one's balance while balancing on a wall, at which point one has to jump off in order to overcome a ditch, this requires weighing up, assessing, trying things out and possibly also changing the original plan. The child is always mentally challenged in the process, it thinks in its actions, so to say. For example, when balancing on the kerb or on the wall, children gain experience about balance. They spread their arms out to the side, carefully place their feet in front of each other, shift their weight from one leg to the other. They can only understand what the term "equal weight" means if they can experiment with their own body balance in different situations. And when they swing, they also experiment with their body posture so as to strengthen or slow down the swing.  

In this way, children form concepts with the help of physical experiences and sensory experiences; in action, they learn about the relationship between causes and effect and can relate these to each other.

The means which enable them to do so are the actions of movement. They are the elementary stage of intelligence development. Thinking initially takes the form of active action: through the practical management of situations, the child achieves mental mastery over them (Zimmer 2020). 


Develop motor skills

However, physical activity is not only a means of experience, children also develop their own motor skills. In a game of catch, reaching the other players who are running away or avoiding the catcher, climbing a staircase with many steps, standing on one leg, pushing a heavy box away, finding the right rhythm when jumping rope and being able to perform several jumps in a row - children need stamina, strength, coordination and balance to master these tasks. These motor skills are the prerequisite for any motor performance and do not mature on their own and without help, but develop primarily through their use, by being practised, challenged and "trained" through various forms of movement games already in childhood. In childhood, however, such training takes place solely through play: children even enjoy the feeling of exhaustion and fatigue after a strenuous game of catch, of relaxation and release after a speedy ride on the scooter. They feel the resilience of the body, the ability of the organism to recover and be ready for action again after a short break. 

While walking, running, climbing, jumping, crawling, sliding, hopping, sliding, hanging and swinging, they experience the variety of their movement possibilities. These form the prerequisite for the formation of habits that can help to counteract a sedentary everyday life. This also prevents the dramatically increasing lack of movement diseases such as obesity and posture problems, which are already prevalent in childhood. 


Learning with and from each other

In movement games, children learn to do something together with others, they imitate others and are role models for them, they play with and against each other, they give in and assert themselves, they argue and make up again and thus gain important social experiences (Zimmer 2020). 

When being physically active, children can compare themselves with others, measure themselves against each other, compete and learn how to deal with success but also how to cope with failure.

Already at an early stage the importance of play partners for the child's development becomes apparent. Social skills such as consideration, tolerance, empathy, behaviour in conflict situations are only practised in groups; they can only develop when several children play together and have their first social experiences in this context. This includes, for example, putting aside one's own wishes in favour of the needs of others, taking the perspective of others, looking for common rules. Even the simplest games such as tag and hide-and-seek provide opportunities for this and children very quickly realise that the games only succeed when the playing partners adjust to each other. 


Finding your own ways to solve problems

Movement situations thus create both diverse learning stimuli that promote the children's motor skills, and also their social skills, which strengthen their confidence in their own abilities and challenge their problem-solving skills.

What is important here is a motivating environment that allows them to become active themselves, to find their own ways and instead of considering mistakes as aberrations, regard them as completely normal steps towards solving a problem.

Movement experiences enable children to actively engage with their social and material environment. They are looking for borderline experiences - they want to develop further and try out new things. Even though overcoming challenges is exhausting, it gives them the chance to discover and develop their own potential - an important developmental aspect in the first years of life. 



Zimmer, R.(2019a). Handbuch Sinneswahrnehmung. Grundlagen einer ganzheitlichen Bildung und Erziehung. (Handbook of sensory perception. Foundations of holistic education and upbringing.) Freiburg: Herder

Zimmer, R. (2019b). Handbuch Psychomotorik. Theorie und Praxis der psychomotorischen Förderung von Kindern. (Handbook of psychomotricity. Theory and practice of psychomotor support for children) Freiburg: Herder

Zimmer, R. (2020). Handbuch Bewegungserziehung. Grundlagen für Ausbildung und pädagogische Praxis. (Handbook of physical education. Basics for training and pedagogical practice.) Freiburg: Herder 



Prof. Dr phil. Renate Zimmer:

Educationalist specialised in early childhood and professor of sports science at the University of Osnabrück. Author of many specialist books on topics such as movement promotion, psychomotricity, perception, which have been translated into many languages. Founder of the initiative "Bewegte Kindheit" (Active Childhood). 


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